15 March 2012

Former clean energy czar tries to stop Europe's dirtiest new power plant

In a letter to top-level U.S. Treasury officials, Daniel Kammen wrote that he will be "bitterly disappointed" if the World Bank finances a 600-megawatt lignite-fired power station outside the Kosovo capital of Pristina

By Lisa Friedman | E&E News in Bank Information Center | 14 March 2012

The World Bank's former renewable energy czar came out strongly this week against a U.S.-led effort to build a coal plant in Kosovo.

In a letter to top-level U.S. Treasury officials, Daniel Kammen wrote that he will be "bitterly disappointed" if the World Bank finances, at U.S. insistence, a 600-megawatt lignite-fired power station outside the Kosovo capital of Pristina.

Two studies, including one Kammen directed since returning to his post at the University of California, Berkeley, show several cleaner options for Kosovo that activists say neither the Obama administration nor the World Bank has seriously considered.

"I see a critical decision point where the World Bank can empower political leaders to lead the charge for a clean energy future for the Kosovar people -- or we can collectively fumble a chance to usher in a new secure and sustainable energy economy," Kammen wrote.

Kosovo is the poorest country in Europe and badly in need of reliable electricity generation. Its main plant, known as Kosovo A, is the continent's largest point source of air pollution. Under the U.S. plan, Kosovo would shutter Kosovo A and, with a partial risk guarantee by the World Bank, build a lignite power station to replace it. Often referred to as "brown coal," lignite is considered the dirtiest of all fossil fuels.

World Bank officials, still smarting from criticisms when it backed a 4,800-megawatt coal plant in South Africa last year, are working hard to keep the project under the radar. A spokeswoman for the bank declined to comment on the project, other than to refer to a recent expert assessment the institution performed, which found a compelling case for the lignite plant.

Yet while the World Bank would ultimately grant the financing, the United States is pulling the strings. The project has strong backing from the U.S. State Department, which launched plans to address Kosovo's power situation nearly 10 years ago. The Obama administration has defended the project, noting that Kosovo is a poor and landlocked country in desperate need of energy security and with few resources other than lignite.

A range of other options

That, however, is not what Kammen found. In an analysis, he found a range of options for Kosovo -- the most prominent being a need for investment in energy efficiency. Kosovo's grid leaks 40 percent of the power it generates before it even makes it to consumers, Kammen said. Meanwhile, the country already has 200 MW of privately proposed wind projects before its electricity board.

Many of them need work in order to become operational, and structural problems would need addressing. But, he said in an recent interview with ClimateWire, "to me, that's a natural place for the international community to fund. It doesn't make sense for the poorest citizens of Europe to pay for that, but if the international community is willing to pay for a coal plant, I would argue an even better investment would be to put that money toward assisting for or fully paying for a feed-in tariff."

Biomass and an increase in the amount of hydropower also are lesser but still available options for Kosovo, he added.

"There's an abundance of resources in and around Kosovo. These are very good investments, so the interest of the international community to invest in Kosovo could be turned from building a long fossil fuel legacy going forward to a green legacy," he said.

Kammen and a group of environmental activists from the United States and Kosovo met yesterday with officials from the State Department, the Treasury Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Justin Guay, with the Sierra Club's International Climate Program, said officials took Kammen's analysis seriously but didn't budge on backing the project.

"They did their homework. You can't just brush off the criticism of the former renewable energy czar of the World Bank," Guay said. But, he said, it felt like the administration was just going through the motions of meeting with opponents. "The upshot was, 'Facts be damned, we made a political decision,'" he said. "They were just checking a box of NGO engagement."

A Treasury spokeswoman said the agency plans to review all the documents before deciding how the United States will vote when the Kosovo plan comes before the World Bank board for approval. That could be a year away, activists said, but key blueprints like Kosovo's country strategy, which will include the coal plant, are expected to come before the board in the coming weeks.

Click here to read Kammen's letter.
© 2012 Bank Information Center

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