Published on March 18, 2021

Will Kosovo’s new government start phasing out coal?

by Rosa Hergan

Even if it didn’t include any energy sector related goals in its electoral programme, experts still hope to see VETËVENDOSJE, the new governing party in Kosovo, announce a coal phaseout date for the country and start to plan for the transition away from coal.  

In March, Just Transition Portal’s Rosa Hergan spoke to Dardan Abazi, program manager and senior researcher at the Pristina-based Institute for Development Policy (INDEP), about the choices Kosovo’s new government is facing in the energy sector.

Established in 2011, INDEP is a think tank, focusing on regional policies and aiming to guide countries of South-East Europe on their path to Euro-Atlantic integration.

Just Transition: How should the new government address the energy transition in Kosovo?

Dardan Abazi: The biggest challenge is to convince our politicians that phasing out coal is not some criteria the European Union is imposing on Kosovo.

The decarbonization of Kosovo’s economy is not about fulfilling compulsory targets, but it is a chance for Kosovo’s society to transform towards a better and more inclusive one that thrives off sustainable growth.

The previous governments’ approaches have been marked by the lack of political will. In the past, we saw that governments solely engaged with the energy sector to increase the installed capacity of coal-based energy such as the plan for a new coal-fired power plant, Kosova e Re.

However, the outgoing government in Kosovo formed a working group to draft a new energy strategy. INDEP hopes to see the new government finalize this process and manifest political support for the energy transition by introducing targets and deadlines for phasing-out coal until 2050, latest.

Next up, I hope to see that the new government is going to work towards fulfilling the provisions under the Green Agenda which Kosovo has committed itself in the Sofia Declaration in 2020. These commitments should be included in the new energy strategy and the national energy and climate plan as well as other strategic documents that are going to be produced this year.

JT: What are the economic and socio-political challenges of developing renewables in Kosovo?

DA: The development of renewable energy sources has been hampered by several barriers. First, the current feed-in tariffs, which have overwhelmingly been channeled towards small hydropower plants, need to be replaced by an auction-based incentive scheme. This move would make Kosovo’s energy market competitive. The status-quo locked Kosovo’s energy sector in coal, limiting the modernization of the energy sector and the development of renewables.

Renewable energy sources are increasingly viewed as unaffordable to the individual Kosovar citizen because of the high-utility prices of electricity generated by hydropower plants which are subsidized by feed-in tariffs. The faster we liberalize the energy market through an auction-based incentive scheme and reveal the true market price of different technologies, the easier it will be to secure public support for the development of renewables in Kosovo.

To bring the energy transition closer to its citizens, the government should also show progress on policies and regulations on energy cooperatives. I believe that as prosumers, citizens will understand the benefits of renewable energy better.

JT: How can deliberate obstructions of public consultation processes be prevented in future renewable projects?

DA: We have witnessed a rampant development of hydropower plants with a capacity of fewer than 10 megawatts (MW) destroying rivers and access to water for local citizens because of the current aid scheme in Kosovo. Most plants were built without properly enforced public consultations, or in violation of Kosovo’s legislation on protected areas, leading to citizens and NGOs protesting the construction of hydropower plants in Kosovo for the past five years. Combined, these issues have instilled a distrust of renewable energy production among Kosovo’s citizens.

One way to address this issue in the future is through the adjustment of the Regulation of Minimum Standards on Public Consultations. It entails an Online Platform for public consultations on which CSO and citizens can see draft documents of legislation and provide commentary in the policy process. Under the regulation’s legal provisions, consulting institutions are obliged to reply to comments in a written form, stating whether the comment will be included in the document, or reasoned why they had been rejected.

When it comes to external agencies and public enterprises, we do not see such consultation processes. Public enterprises have frequently been documented as deliberately obstructing the participation of citizens in public consultations by announcing the consultation in daily newspapers, which nobody reads, or posting announcements in a small corner of their website.

INDEP has already recommended changes to the legislation such as creating one place for public enterprises, independent agencies, and the government to publish public consultation notices as well as environmental impact assessments for projects with a potential impact on the environment. This approach would increase public participation in the policy-making process and can lead to better outcomes more generally.

JT: What signal does the absence of the energy sector in Lëvizja VETËVENDOSJE’s (LV) political program send?

DA: We at INDEP were very disappointed and concerned about LV’s decision to exclude any provisions on the energy sector in the political program in the run-up to the elections in February. Particularly, since the party was positioned to win ahead of the election. We had requested each party to clarify their position on the energy sector before the election but didn’t receive any comprehensive answers.

In the 2019 elections, however, LV was in favor of building two new units of coal-fired power plants. At this point, we have to see how the party will position itself in the upcoming months once the government is established.

JT: What are the prospects for a just transition in Kosovo?

DA: The concept is not born yet, with NGO actors mostly mentioning it in their reports. INDEP is using the concept in its daily communication with the government as well as in reports.

There is no resonance at the central policy level, even though it has been mentioned in Kosovo’s strategic response to the IPA III funds from Brussels.

I think the idea of a just transition, in terms of inclusive policy making, is key to the energy transition in Kosovo. But it will take the Western Balkan region to commit to the energy transition before it will become more or less natural to speak about a just transition in Kosovo. 

JT: Have Kosovo’s coal worker unions been vocal about their position regarding an energy transition?

DA: Korporata Energjetike e Kosovës (KEK) is the primary employer of coal workers, producing 90% of the lignite used by Kosovo’s two thermal plants Kosovo A and B. The coal worker union is well organized in Kosovo, but its demands center on higher salaries and better working conditions.

On a more positive note, KEK has put in small investments in solar projects to see how they are going to transition themselves. They do lack a long-term plan, which we would like to see.

JT: What challenges lay ahead of a just transition?

DA: There need to be jobs available before phasing-out coal. In the past, Kosovo has deployed early retirement schemes to counteract job losses due to institution-building since the post-conflict period. I think the new government will have to come up with similar schemes, besides offering opportunities to reskill coal workers.

We are just updating a paper on vocational training at INDEP, which addresses the possibilities to include new professional training in the energy efficiency sector into the curricula of vocational training schools that are located all around Kosovo. This could be a good start for the government to facilitate the re-training of coal workers.

It is also worth considering the consequences resulting from the privatization of public enterprises in the past, which led to job losses in Kosovo. High unemployment rates increasingly led to untreated mental health issues because citizens faced numerous challenges to be taken care of in Kosovo’s social security system. It is crucial to prevent this from happening to people who have built their lives in the factories and the mines.

The good thing is that the government will have plenty of time because Kosovo is trailing behind the process in the region. I think once it sets into motion, it will still be a slow process, enabling the government to produce a just transition plan that saves the workers’ dignity and helps them become skilled in a different working sector in the meantime.

Featured image, from the Kosovo A and B complex, by Flickr user Dren Pozhegu, published here under a CC licence.