Harnessing the Sun’s Abundance
Albania has plenty of sunshine—around 265 days a year. What it hasn’t had is much capacity to harness the sun’s abundant rays as a source of clean, renewable energy. Gradually, hat’s beginning to change—in the National Park of Thethi, for instance. Nestled high in the Albanian Alps, the park is home to one of the country’s largest woodlands and a variety of endangered species. Spectacularly beautiful, it is also poor and remote, with few modern energy sources. Long distances to markets and limited land for agriculture make livelihoods hard to come by. The park’s striking scenery does attract tourists, however, and in the last few years, the business has boomed. Some 12,000 tourists per year visit today, compared to only 300 in 2006. Twenty-three guesthouses operate, but with mostly rudimentary facilities likely to discourage less adventuresome guests. In 2012, UNDP, with funding from the Global Environment Facility, worked with local officials and the owners of the guesthouses to introduce some improvements. Eleven now have solar water heaters for comfortable showers and kitchen use.
Marie Marku, one of the owners, invested her own funds to co-finance the changes. Already, she sees a return. “I never thought that such an intervention would have such a great impact,” she says with amazement. “The number of guests has doubled, and I think a big part of the reason is due to the solar panels.”
Progress from the ground up
The changes in the park exemplify Albania’s emerging efforts to diversify its energy sources, a priority that its National Energy Strategy recognizes as key to meeting steadily rising demand and ensuring secure supplies. While solar water heating is a logical part of this process, the transition to it has been slow. High import duties and taxes made installation costs steep. Capacities to produce install and maintain solar water-heating systems were limited. But the potential was there, given Albania’s sunny location. Since 2008, UNDP has supported a number of measures to help reduce barriers. To cultivate change from the ground up, among the companies and professionals who produce, install and use solar water-heating systems, it helped establish training sessions for selected architects, construction companies and installers to learn new skills. To sustain the spread of knowledge, all 12 of Albania’s vocational centers developed curricula on installation and repair, and appointed qualified instructors to teach them.
- All vocational centers now have courses on installing and repairing solar water-heating systems
- After installation of a system at Tirana’s orphan house, electricity bills sank by 67 percent
- Installations of solar panels to heat water more than doubled between 2009 and 2012.
- Albania’s 2013 Law on renewable energy gives a major boost to solar water heating
Albania’s five producers of solar water heaters travelled to the Swiss Solar Consortium to test their products and learn how to improve them, including for certification based on European Union standards. Some manufacturers were already close to these. All benefited from suggestions to improve production. Outreach to potential users encouraged them to move past thinking that solar energy was too complicated or expensive. With UNDP assistance, a creative advocacy campaign targeted communities all along Albania’s 450-kilometre-long coast. At beaches, a portable solar-powered shower was set up so that anyone interested could see for themselves how they might comfortably rinse off after a day at the sea. Public information materials stressed how Albania is naturally suited for solar energy, and that the return on investment in solar water heating for solar energy, and that the return on investment in solar water heating can be relatively soon. An online tool was set up allowing any citizen to calculate savings. Media outreach included television broadcasts as well as articles in trade magazines for banks, and the tourism and construction industries.
Making the case for change
Since nothing makes the case for change like actual experiences, UNDP also sponsored a series of demonstration projects, such as the one in the National Park of Thethi. Hotels along the coast, among the earliest adopters of solar water-heating systems, were assisted in upgrading and optimizing their installations, with 80 percent affirming new efficiencies and savings.
After the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities expressed interest in reducing the energy costs of social service institutions, UNDP experts determined that up to 60 percent of their electricity use goes to heating water. As an experiment, a solar water-heating system was installed at Tirana’s Orphan House; electricity bills immediately sank by 67 percent.
Denada Seferi, the ministry’s Director of Social Policy, says, “This initiative is not only a simple energy-related intervention—it impacts directly the life quality of children living here. Such a project inspires us to continue the transformation of all social care institutions.”
By 2020, UNDP aims at encouraging the installation of 520,000 square meters of new solar panels for heating water. Under a business-as-usual scenario, total installations for the same period are projected at only 184,000 square meters. Installations have begun to grow, from a total of just over 50,000 square meters in 2009 to nearly 112,000 square meters by 2012—an increase of about 25 percent per year.
A major boost for solar water heating occurred in 2013, when Albania passed its Law on Renewable Energy, using UNDP expertise to develop provisions to promote the systems.
The law stipulates tax exemptions for installations, as well as guidelines on certification and labeling. Based on the law, new governmental regulations are being issued, including to reduce customs duties and value-added taxes on materials to produce solar water heaters, create a certification system for installers and define which building types would most benefit from adopting the technology.
Once these regulations are in place, annual sales of solar water-heating systems are expected to rise steadily by 10 percent per year, with the payback time on initial investments in equipment on average at under five years. After that, for the remainder of the 20-year average lifespan of most heaters, purchasers can continue to enjoy lower power costs.
With the law calling on municipalities to install the systems in all new public buildings and those undergoing significant renovations, Tirana has tapped UNDP support for implementation. Plans call for developing new standards, piloting installations in a day care centre and high school, training municipal staff and exploring financing options.
Since initial investments are one of the barriers to solar water heater conversions, talks have now begun on a new national renewable energy fund that could provide financing to a cross-section of applications. In the interim, the UNDP project and the Government are jointly funding innovative new projects by municipalities and industries, building on the successful experience with the tourism business. At some point, as different elements of transformation come together, the sun’s rays will mean much more than just an enjoyable day at the beach.