In-depth | Environment

Keeping warm with less air pollution

By - 05.03.2024

The Gjakova heating plant is a pioneer in sustainable energy.

In eastern Gjakova, a city known for its industrialism during the Yugoslavia era, a yellow sign directs visitors to the ruins of the city’s former heating plant. Today, these ruins serve as a poignant reminder of Gjakova’s industrial past. For around four decades, this oil-fueled heating plant filled the sky above Gjakova with black smoke.

In addition to emitting toxic smoke, burning the oil also released unpleasant odors. The heating plant operated at a financial loss and was unable to stay open. It was closed in 2020 and today is a dilapidated building.

With the opening of the new heating plant in 2021, located a few hundred meters behind the old one, Gjakova bid farewell to the old heating plant, which had been releasing emissions since 1981. Instead of oil, the new plant uses woody biomass as fuel.

Although the new plant is equipped with the latest technology, it uses the old distribution network. The plant is the result of a 15 million euro investment from the European Union (EU) and the existing distribution network was advantageous for Gjakova.

The old heating plant (left) and the new heating plant (right).
Foto: Majlinda Hoxha/K2.0

Some of the staff who worked in the old heating plant still work there today, such as machine technician Mergim Demhaja, who works in the control room. For 38 years he has worked in front of the screens that monitor the generation of thermal energy.

“There’s no big difference in the work process. It used to burn oil, this one now burns biomass, the same logic applies to the operation,” said Demhaja. “But, in terms of infrastructure, the difference is night and day.” He left the control room, opened a door and looked towards the chimney.

“You can only see steam coming out,” he said, implying that he wouldn’t want to go back to the old days when smoke came out of the chimneys. “No one could stand the harsh smell of the oil. Many of my colleagues have had breathing problems. Without even turning on the boiler, the foul odor could be detected, so just imagine when it was turned on.”

A computer in the corner constantly monitors the level of dust particles and carbon dioxide released by the combustion in the heating plant. Although the production of thermal energy has almost doubled in the new heating plant, from about 9MWh to over 15MWh, the amount of emissions has been significantly reduced. Compared to the amount of carbon dioxide that was released by burning fuel oil, which was about 49,000 tons for one season, the heating plant has only released about eight tons through February.

The new heater plant technology, in addition to filtering out toxic particles and drastically reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, keeps the ash inside the cellars below the heating plant and does not release any foul odors.

Mërgim Demjaha, employee at the Gjakova Heating Plant for 38 years. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha/K2.0

In addition to being less harmful to the environment, advanced heater technology offers management and control options that make the work more efficient.

Blerim Halilaj, a mechanical engineer, assumed the role of executive director of the heating plant in December 2023. He can manage the heating plant’s entire operation from the comfort of his office. He can check the power generation capacity at any given moment, the water circulation, the temperature and he can even see the heating’s final destination. With only one click, he can increase or decrease the thermal energy that goes to consumers.

There are 2,000 consumers connected to the Gjakova heating plant’s network, but only 600 are active and receive heating. According to Director Halilaj, this is a legacy of the past when residents started to unregister because there was no regular heating. Currently, the city’s heating network covers 32% of the city, but reaching the generation capacity would double the number of consumers.

According to Halilaj, the total area of buildings and spaces warmed by the heating plant is 122,000 square meters. This includes schools, nurseries, dormitories, institutions. This year, heating has been activated at full capacity in the entire Gjakova Hospital. He said that consistent heating provision has increased consumer interest. Next year, he expects many more customers to connect to the central heating system. He also observes a positive trend in new builders, who are interested in investing in central heating and connecting residents to it.

Blerim Halilaj, executive director of the Gjakova Heating Plant and an image of the heating plant network and consumers in the management program.
Photo: Majlinda Hoxha/K2.0

However, using the old distribution infrastructure requires additional investment. The temperature of the water circulating in the heating pipes, which are 47 kilometers long across Gjakova, drops until it reaches some neighborhoods because the pipes don’t have pre-insulation.

An agreement between the municipality and the heating plant foresees that whenever a road is renovated or opened, new pipes will be laid. This will avoid roads being dug up multiple times and expand the coverage of the central heating to reach more residents.

Healthier and cheaper

Workers move through the corridors and as Demjaha said from the control room, “everything is like at a pharmacy,” implying there is cleanliness and order.

A metal structure holds all the equipment, but also creates a labyrinth of stairs that lead from one corner of the building to another.

The machine engineer, Adrian Bunjaku and the electrical engineer, Florentina Lama, join as guides for the production sector.

The plant has three boilers that burn biomass. The total capacity is 15MW of thermal energy and 1.2MW of electricity. So far, the maximum production in this season has been 9MW, which means that the plant has free capacities awaiting network expansion. The plant is also expected to start generating electricity at the end of 2024.

“We will produce more electricity than we have capacity to consume. Now we will renew an agreement with KOSTT (the Transmission System and Electricity Market Operator) and then we will have the ideal conditions to start the operation,” said Lama, who will be the operation engineer for the cogeneration that will produce electrical energy.

Using biomass instead of coal and oil maximizes efficiency and minimizes pollution being released into the atmosphere. In this way, Gjakova is a pioneer in energy sustainability in Kosovo.

Florentina Lama, electrical engineer (left) and Adrian Bunjaku, mechanical engineer. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha/K2.0

By utilizing wooden shavings with a moisture content of 35%, the thermal energy generated by the Gjakova heating plant not only reduces harmful emissions, but also helps the Western Balkan region reach its goal of achieving carbon neutrality, as carbon emissions are one of the climate crisis’ main causes. Every megawatt produced in this way helps Kosovo be cleaner and reduces the dependence on burning coal in the Obiliq thermal power plants, which continue to be the main way of securing energy supply.

Outside, a large pile of branches waits to be chopped with a tractor-mounted machine. Near the boiler, a truck excavator pushes the chopped wood towards a metal conveyor belt. Then, the wood shavings are automatically fed into the biomass boiler’s kiln. 

The public company that prunes trees in the city brought the waste there. This was not the first time and the long-term plan is something even more financially efficient.

“In the 2021-2022 season, there was a project where forests were cleared and a lot of wood came to us from that process, reducing the cost of production,” said Halilaj. “We are planning to deal with this process ourselves, by either contracting a company that performs forest clearing, or even creating our own team.”

For this season, 7,000 tons of biomass have been contracted for supply. According to Halilaj, if this quantity of wood was burned in stoves in houses it would heat only 20% of the area covered by the plant.

Stored wood biomass waiting to be burned to produce thermal energy. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha/K2.0

It is impossible for the company to sustain itself financially only with consumers’ payments. As a public enterprise, the heating plant falls under the jurisdiction of the Municipality of Gjakova. Its budget consists of subsidies from both the Ministry of Economy and the municipality of Gjakova. The total operation cost amounts to nearly 935,000 euros, with subsidies covering more than 60%.

The high price of firewood in recent years has disrupted the company’s economic balance. However, Halilaj expects that by the end of the year, the company will make a small profit or a balance of zero, avoiding any losses.

“The good thing is that the price of supply is decreasing and I believe that next year will be positive,” he said, adding they are collecting payments from 95% of consumers and those that don’t pay they contract bailiffs to deal with them.

The price for using heaters is relatively low. For a family consumer the price per square meter is 90 cents, while the commercial price is 1.30 euros. A house of 60 square meters pays 54 euros per month for 24 hours of heating in the winter season whereas an eight square meter bar can be heated throughout the winter for 104 euros per month.

There is a heating distribution scheme that shows the temperature that schools and other institutions receive. This year, the unusually sunny weather meant there were less cold days in January and February, but this did not encourage many schools to turn off or reduce their heating. Halilaj has started to call them on the phone and advise them to turn down their heating.

Yll Morina School in Gjakova. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha/K2.0

The Yll Morina School in Gjakova is one of the few schools in the city that now receives heat from Gjakova heating plant’s network. Berat Bejtullahu has been the director there for seven years. Previously, he worked as a director at the Zekerija Rexha elementary school, which is heated with oil-burning boilers. According to him, the differences are significant in every aspect.

“Oil-burning was at least four times more expensive. You couldn’t get through the winter with 20,000 euros of oil, even without keeping the radiators turned on continuously. Someone had to come in at four or five in the morning to turn the heating on, so that the school was warmed up when the students arrived,” said Bejtullahu. “Today we manage with 2,000 euros a month.”

With the expansion plan underway for the heating plant and a growing trend among residents to connect to its network, the sky of Gjakova seems to be ready for cleaner days.

Feature Image: Majlinda Hoxha/K2.0

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