Author: Jelena Kozbašić
The second annual conference on How to win the Balkan air-pollution dodgeball, organized by RES Foundation, was held on December 1st and 2nd, and the central point of discussion of the gathered experts was the course of energy transition in the region.
“We have two goals ahead of us: to keep global warming below 1.5°C and to reduce air pollution below the limit set by the World Health Organization,” said RES Foundation Programme Director Aleksandar Macura at the opening of the second annual policy conference “Ne to. 0! ”. The event was organized on December 1 and 2, by RES Foundation.
According to the programme director of RES Foundation, in order to ensure sustainability, we must all work to meet these two goals. “Today, we are holding this conference during the great energy crisis, so the long-term horizons are fading a bit again and we are returning to the other two important aspects of energy: energy supply security and affordability. This in no way delays the need to act quickly on the issue of 1.5 °C and 5 mg/m3 of the concentration of pollutants”, he noted.
“Through this conference, we want to encourage decision makers, professionals and the interested public to think about this topic, to be inspired, to launch initiatives, to fix the launched initiatives and to implement them to the end,” Macura explained.
Participants agreed that the time for action is now. Decarbonization of the energy system and the production of thermal energy will consequently reduce air pollution, so the experts at the RES Foundation conference discussed these two solutions for improving air quality. They praised some of the existing projects and shared concrete advice for future actions.
Investments in RES are crucial for the energy transition
The Ministry of Mining and Energy is certainly among the most important actors in the decarbonisation process. Secretary Maja Matija Ristic pointed out that citizens are at the center of our law and referred to why this is so. “It is important to make citizens aware of what energy transition means, what the problems are, what the reasons are, why we are doing all this, why energy and environmental policies are changing. Our laws are focused on the citizens of the Republic of Serbia, for example, through the very actual measure of prosumer, i.e. the measure of incentives for the buyer-producer, where the citizen himself will be able to be alone and independent and will be able to produce his own electricity and put the surplus into the network. It will all be reflected in his budget, in his accounts as well. This year, we also started energy efficiency measures: replacement of windows, photovoltaics, installation of solar panels for hot water… These are all measures that are certainly an integral part of the future energy transition. However, much more serious measures are future investments. We have to build new capacities because any withdrawal of electricity production from lignite, i.e. from coal, requires appropriate and fast replacement capacities”, the secretary pointed out.
Why “Not that. 0! ”?
Ne to (“Not that”) is a play on words and means “Reci NE – ugljeniku” (Say NO – to carbon), i.e. no to fossil fuels, no to “stranded” investments in disappearing fossil energy infrastructure, while alluding to the net-zero emissions that the world should strive for.
The project that will be able to partially replace the existing coal thermal power plants in the future is the solar power plant, with a capacity of 150 MW, planned by CWP. Nikola Stamenov is the development director for Serbia in that company, and he believes that the last years have been great for renewable energy sources and have never been seen in the past. “One of the biggest things and changes that have happened in the last two years is that the prices of electricity from renewable sources, primarily solar and wind, have dropped dramatically. Only five or six years ago, greening the mix and consumption of electricity was a conscious choice that required additional financial resources. In the last three years, especially in the last year, we have seen huge changes. The most important thing for businesses is to have the cheapest energy, regardless of whether it is green or comes from fossil fuels. “Energy from solar and wind is cheaper today than any other, maybe only hydropower is ahead”, Stamenov emphasized, adding that energy from solar and wind became the first choice even for companies that do not have a green agenda due to economic profitability.
Participants also discussed the potential of biomass, and some of the advantages of its use were land restoration, biodiversity protection, forest protection, improving water and air quality, carbon sequestration and job creation. According to the presented data, about 75 thousand hectares of bioenergy plantations could replace as much as 10% of the current production of electricity from coal in our country.
And what about miners?
Nikola Stamenov expects that the reduction of energy prices from renewable sources will result in pressure from the media and the public to accelerate the energy transition, especially when we consider that fossil fuels as an alternative to renewable sources are destroying our planet, but he sees the issue of miners as one of the difficulties. “That is a big problem in Serbia and the region.” There are tens of thousands who have been employed in this sector for generations. What we will do with the miners will also be a challenge on the way to net-zero emissions. This needs to be pushed through some kind of retraining and programs, especially in developing and poor countries. Large, developed and rich nations should step forward and support miners, for instance, in the Balkans. This is as important an issue for the European Union as any other in their plan to achieve net zero emissions.”
The United Nations resident coordinator in Serbia, Francois Jacob, also expressed concern for the people who will be affected by the energy transition. According to her, this problem should be solved by professional training and job creation. These actions represent the center of the concept of a fair transition, which was discussed at the event on several occasions.
The wind of change already blows in Serbia
One of the projects that already provide green kilowatt-hours for residents and industry in our country is the Kovačica wind farm located in one of the windiest areas in our country. Wind farm was presented by Deputy Director Veljko Ožegović at the RES Foundation conference on behalf of his company, New Energy Solutions, via video.
“What used to be an obstacle is that it was new for everyone, for us, for the state, for every market participant. Now that situation has changed. Our regulations are adapting, advancing. Wind power technology has advanced drastically in the last decade and more. In the past, the technology itself, due to its price, both investment and maintenance, simply limited the construction of such facilities. Today, we have come to a completely different time where this technology is becoming available and available in all regions, including Serbia “, concluded Ožegović in the video presentation of the Kovačica wind farm.
Children are among the most vulnerable groups due to air pollution
Citizens are important actors on the road to carbon neutrality, so they need to be properly informed when making decisions, and the system must be transparent. Branko Čečen, director of the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS), spoke about this. He pointed out that CINS is facing more and more difficulties in its work because it has to check all the data and information from the documents it received from the government because the allegations are often wrong.
“We are frustrated because it takes more and more time, more energy, more skills and knowledge, for something as simple as sending requests and receiving government documents of public interest,” he explained, adding that people are unaware of conditions regarding greenhouse gas emissions and their consequences.
Čečen also touched on the topic of air pollution that has existed in our country for decades: “The same people dig the same dirty coal, the same thermal power plants burn it, the same smoke, pollutants and gases are in our atmosphere and the same children living around these plants get sick.” both in Serbia and in neighboring countries, because we cannot stop the pollution. ” The director of CINS stated that the level of responsibility of the country for the health of citizens is best read through the fact that, due to the non-functioning of the official network for measuring air quality, there are many alternatives.
The Ambassador of Norway to Serbia, Jørn Eugen Gjelstad, also referred to the problem of air pollution.
Given that children are one of the most vulnerable groups, the Norwegian ambassador described the project of Norway and UNICEF, which aims to raise awareness of school-age children, parents and teachers about the level of air pollution and their harmful effects on health and physical and cognitive development.
“Schools from all over Serbia will install devices for measuring air quality in their environment.” We hope that environmental protection will become an extracurricular activity in many classrooms, ”said Jørn Eugen Gjelstad.
How can we decarbonize the heating sector in our region?
According to the majority of conference participants, the key technologies that will contribute to the sustainable decarbonization of heating in our region are district heating (55%) and direct use of heat pumps without the intervention of district heating systems (31%), while 7% of participants voted for electricity heating and sustainable biomass solutions.
The biggest challenge in eradicating fossil fuels in the heating sector in our country is that people do not have the money to afford the replacement of obsolete and inefficient stoves and renovation of housing even with subsidies of 50%, conference participants agreed, so the transition should be focused on health, but also on well-being of citizens. Experts see widespread wood burning as one of the problems: it should be kept to a minimum and should be sustainable.
In addition to the transition to renewable sources in the production of both heat and electricity, increasing energy efficiency is also one of the indispensable parts of low-carbon development in Serbia. The Valley of Good Energy project, implemented in Preševo, was highlighted as an example of good practice, as part of which local public facilities received “recipes” for energy optimization from experts. Improving energy efficiency reduces heating and electricity bills, but also improves user or resident comfort. As part of the project, energy audits were performed, as well as an assessment of the solar potential of this municipality. According to Željko Zečević, an energy efficiency expert from the RES Foundation, good energy for Preševo would include energy rehabilitation of all public buildings and the introduction of LED lighting.
The energy transition requires financial resources, the adoption and implementation of appropriate acts, but also cross-border cooperation and exchange of experiences, especially in the region, are some of the “Ne to. 0!” conference conclusions.