Small Hydropower Plants on Sarantaporos, Aoos and Voidomatis rivers, July 2023

Small Hydropower Plants on Sarantaporos, Aoos and Voidomatis rivers, July 2023

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by Thymios Dimopoulos, GIS Specialist – Architect/MedINA and
Alexandra Pappa, Freshwater Programme Manager/MedINA
Article editing and translation into English: George Dimitropoulos, Urban Planner and Fundraising Officer/MedINA

Last March saw a major achievement for Europe’s inland waters, with the declaration of the Aoos/Vjosa River, on the Albanian side of the border, as Europe’s first Wild River National Park. The multi-year efforts of the ‘Saving Europe’s last free-flowing river: Aoos/Vjosa’ project coalition in this direction have been a great success. Now, the entire Vjosa River in Albania, from its border with Greece to the Adriatic Sea, as well as some of its free-flowing tributaries –a river system with a total length of 409 km– enjoy the highest level of protection, without threats of dam construction in their course, a unique case in Europe. At the same time, however, the future of the estuary remains uncertain, as a huge tourism investment is planned in the area, starting with the construction of the airport in the Narta lagoon.

What is then the situation in the upstream part of the Aoos/Vjosa hydrological system in Greece, which remains without the necessary protection? As part of our efforts to promote conservation and institutional protection of the river in Greece, we are monitoring the current status of Small Hydroelectric Plants (SHPs) in Aoos river basin, which is the main threat for the river in Greece.

As we have presented in a previous article, this monitoring is a demanding task linked to the licensing process of renewable energy projects in the area. The multiplicity and fragmentation of responsibilities between different bodies for each stage of the projects’ development process results in scattered and unclear information, making it almost impossible for citizens and environmental organisations to acquire a clear picture of the situation.

Below, we present the current situation of the licensing process of SHPs in the Aoos river basin, synthesising data collected from the Geospatial Map of the Regulatory Authority for Energy (RAE), the Decentralized Administration of Epirus – West Macedonia, the national Electronic Environmental Register, the Municipality of Zagori, the Municipality of Konitsa, the portal of Diavgeia and from active citizens of the wider area. Furthermore, we record the power capacity of these projects, and we emphasise once again the need for institutional protection of the entire Aoos river basin, with the extension of the boundaries of Northern Pindos National Park towards the Greek-Albanian border.

Ι. Current licensing status of SHPs in the Aoos river basin
Following up from our previous article, where we thoroughly analysed both the general licensing process and the licensing status of SHPs in the Aoos river basin until March 2023, below we add the developments up to July 2023. The table below shows the number of SHPs by licensing stage and by location in March and July 2023, as well as their total energy capacity.

Table 1. Total number of SHPs by licensing stage and location, according to RAE data in March and July 2023.

The total number of SHPs in the Aoos river basin, which are currently in different stages of the licensing process, is 48 according to RAE data (Table 1 and Map 2). This is one (1) less than in March 2023, as one production license, issued between March – July 2023 at Pistiliapi stream, appears to have been revoked. Regarding the different licensing stages, we observe that operation licences and installation licences remain the same. However, seven (7) additional SHPs have received a production license, six (6) of which are located within protected areas of the Natura 2000 network. Most of the new production licenses have been issued in the Natura 2000 area of Mount Grammos on tributaries of the Sarantaporos River. As a result, the total number of SHPs with a production license has increased to thirty-five (35), while the number of applications under evaluation is now seven (7).

II. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Approvals issued by the Decentralized Administration of Epirus – West Macedonia
Although the RAE data do not show any change in terms of operation and installation licenses, data from the Electronic Environmental Register of the Ministry of Environment and the Diavgeia portal reveal that five (5) out of the thirty-five (35) projects with a production license, have obtained EIA Approvals, as category A2 projects, by the Decentralized Administration of Epirus – West Macedonia (Map 2). These are the SHPs in Amarantos, Eptachori, Kefalovryso, Mesopotamos and Manoura, which have obtained EIA Approval between September 2021 – June 2023. In particular, the Mesopotamos SHP comes in addition to two (2) other SHPs already located on Vourkopotamos, rendering the stream particularly modified hydromorphologically. Furthermore, four (4) of these projects are either located within Natura 2000 sites or are less than 500m away from their boundaries, showcasing that the protection framework of these areas has not prevented their licensing. In the meantime, the above projects remain at the same licensing stage according to RAE data, and we do not know whether they have received the relevant installation licenses. In any case though, this seems to be of little significance, as the state services consider projects that have received EIA Approval as licensed, regardless of whether they have proceeded to the final stage of the installation license. Therefore, by adding the five (5) SHPs with EIA Approval to the six (6) SHPs with an installation and operation license, we get a total of eleven (11) currently licensed SHPs within the Aoos river basin (Map 1).

Map 1: Eleven (11) licensed SHPs in the Aoos river basin (07/2023): four (4) with operation license, two (2) with installation license, five (5) with EIA Approval.
Map 2: Overall status of SHPs in the Aoos river basin by licensing stage. Data from RAE (07/2023) and Diavgeia.

III. Power capacity of existing and planned SHPs
The four (4) SHPs currently operating in the Aoos river basin reach 6.83 MW of installed capacity and each can generate between 1.09 and 2.25 MW (Table 1). The other two (2) SHPs that have an installation license reach 7.5 MW while another 6.7 MW is the total capacity of those that have received EIA Approval from the Decentralized Administration of Epirus – West Macedonia. In total, the licensed SHPs have a capacity of 21.03 MW.

Of the planned SHPs, those with a production license will have a capacity of 44.11 MW, while the capacity of projects currently under evaluation is 9.41 MW. In total, the capacity of existing and planned SHPs in the Aoos river basin is 74.55 MW (Map 3).

Map 3: Total energy capacity of licensed and planned SHPs in the Aoos river basin. Data from RAE (07/2023).

IV. Urgent need for institutional protection of the Aoos river basin
The pace at which SHPs are being developed in the Aoos river basin undermines the national and transboundary effort of the last ten years to protect the Aoos River as the last wild river of Europe, negating the commitments of the political leadership in Greece and Albania to characterise the Aoos/Vjosa as an iconic, wild, and free-flowing river. Unless the entire Aoos river basin receives protection status in the immediate future, the planned and licensed SHPs (Map 2) will significantly modify the water system of the Aoos and its tributaries, altering the landscape and making its free flow increasingly regulated. The institutional protection of the Aoos River as a whole is urgent and necessary for the creation of the first transboundary Wild River National Park in Europe, which will not only bring remarkable benefits for people and nature but will also place the two countries hosting this invaluable natural asset at the forefront of Europe.

Decentralized Administration of Epirus – West Macedonia.
Geospatial Map of the Regulatory Authority for Energy (RAE), July 2023.
Diavgeia portal, July 2023.
European Environmental Agency, July 2023.

Featured image: Location of a licensed SHP (with Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) approval), in the sub-basin of the Sarantaporos River, a tributary of the Aoos River © David Kern/MedINA.

This article was developed in the framework of the project “Ri-Connect: the Aoos River as a transboundary ecological corridor”, implemented by the Mediterranean Institute for Nature and Anthropos (MedINA) and funded by PONT.