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Boom in constructing small hydro-electric power plants is raising concerns about the potential environmental impact on pristine rivers.
Romania's first small-scale hydroelectric power plant, one of hundreds planned, is to start functioning this month.
But while the government says they are needed, green activists say they will have a negative impact on the environment and will do little to help Romania meets its green energy needs.
Nationwide, 297 projects have been approved to construct 536 units of up to 10 megawatts each, most sited on the ridge of Romania’s southern Carpathian mountains.
The construction frenzy is backed by generous subsidies from the European Union and with poor oversight from the Romanian authorities, environmentalists say.
“Investors and local authorities are looking only for profits, ignoring the risk that such small plants pose to biodiversity - around 300 rivers are at risk,” Liviu Mihaiu from Salvati Delta Dunarii, a local green organization, says.
Investors counter that they need official approval for the construction of the plants, and they insist they do not have a big impact on the environment.
“We follow construction norms and try not to affect the environment too much,” says Catalin Badea, from the company that is to open first small hydroelectric plant this month.
Small-scale hydro power generally does not involve construction of a dam. Instead, part of the flow is diverted through a large pipe, up to 1.20 metres in diameter, to a downstream turbine that generates the electricity.
In normal conditions this should not have a major impact on the environment. But media reports early this year said that in many cases the pipes had been installed in the bed of the river, instead parallel to the stream or above it, which may affect the direction of the water and disrupt aquatic life.
Soon after the reports emerged, the Environment Ministry ordered work to be suspended for several weeks while specialists carried out checks. They also ordered a moratorium of several months on new permits in order to reassess the law.
But late last month most of the projects for constructing power units obtained new permits.
Scientists do not oppose small hydro-power stations as such, but say tighter controls on investors are required.
“The problem is that construction is done on sites where many valuable and threathened species live, which is why careful planning and work are needed,” biologist Nicolae Galdean says.
Romania has pledged to increase the proportion of electricity it generates from renewable resources to 35 per cent by 2015, and to 38 per cent by 2020.
The country has also to replace 5,000 MW of conventional energy, as new generation capacities need to be created.
Investors are mainly looking for small hydropower developments as such plants respond to fluctuation in electricity demand, which wind farms cannot do.
Similar projects are being developed elsewhere in the Balkan countries, mainly in Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro.
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