Longing for ‘Moldotopia’

Author Marie-Thérèse Schreiber

How Renewable Energy and Knowledge About Energy Efficiency Could Enhance the Quality of Living in Rural Moldova

The locked door of a biomass boiler-room on the site of a Kindergarten in Strășeni. Marie-Thérèse Schreiber
The locked door of a biomass boiler-room on the site of a Kindergarten in Strășeni. Marie-Thérèse Schreiber

In winter, the average Moldovan inhabitant has to spend half of his or her income in order to properly heat his or her home. Due to the extremely low wages, high gas prices and poorly-insulated buildings, some homes even stay uncomfortably cold. This also holds true for schools, kindergartens and other public buildings, as local authorities are often lacking financial resources to provide sufficient heating. As about 95-98% of the natural gas is obtained from Russia, insecurities in energy supply aggravate the situation. Can biomass-fired heating systems make a difference for everyone?

Link to second article: http://europe-in-sight.eu/node/328 additionally

The Moldova energy and biomass project

According to the Moldova Energy Projects Implementation Unit (MEPIU), the exploration of renewable energy sources is a strategic issue in the Republic of Moldova. Unfortunately, the dynamics of the renewable energy sector are still relatively slow and lack substantial investment. Due to the high amount of corruption in Moldova, the sector can also hardly hope for private large-scale foreign direct investments. Nonetheless, a number of pilot projects are giving rise to hope.

One of these projects is the Moldova Energy and Biomass Project (MEBP). During the two-phase implementation period, lasting from 2011 to 2018, it was equipped with a budget of 23,410,000 EUR. The project aimed at a more secure and sustainable energy production in Moldova and was implemented by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and financed by the European Union as part of the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI). To this day, 227 biomass-fired heating systems have been installed in public buildings, some of which were complemented by solar hot water systems. Moreover, local public authorities, civil servants and teachers were taught how to use and multiply eco-technologies and many schools became part of an educational initiative on renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, to name a few of the measures taken.

Biomass is not biomass – how to do it right

Biomass is the most readily available renewable energy source in Moldova. 17% of all energy consumption is biomass-driven. But in this number, burning wood in primitive stoves is included. Recently, people started to heat their homes with wood again instead of gas because they could not afford it any longer. Often the timber is felled illegally in forests that occupy an area of only 10% of the Moldovan territory - and a significant reforestation campaign is not in sight. As an addition to the use of simple wood-burning stoves, leaves, straw and other agricultural leftovers are often directly burned on the fields - a wide-spread phenomenon in Moldova and other countries in the region. “From the end of September to the beginning of November the country is burning! Burning carbon just like that is so unnecessary. And we should really get over it”, as Julian Gröger points out. He is president of the major oldovan NGO ‘EcoVisio’, that promotes environmental sustainability. Ideally, agricultural waste should be processed to briquettes which are then to be burned in special biomass boilers like the ones that were set up within the scope of the MEBP.

A briquetting manufactory in Budesti, In the Middle an employee is processing apple pieces.

© Marie-Thérèse Schreiber / A briquetting manufactory in Budesti, In the Middle an employee is processing apple pieces.

Briquettes made from apples

In Budești, a small town with 5,000 inhabitants, Roman Smolnitchi runs an enterprise with six employees in total – ‘Organic Energy’. Here, briquettes for biomass boilers are being produced. Usually, the raw material consists of straw and of sawdust that is being collected from sawmills of the region. Another eminently innovative product are briquettes made from apples, from agricultural leftovers. Unfortunately, people react hesitant to things that they don’t know, Smolnitchi reports. Therefore, he adds a small, free package of “Biobrichete – Din Pomi Fructiferi” to every delivery. He hopes that this practice will make people curious about the product.

Another subgoal of the Energy and Biomass Project (MEBP) had been to strengthen the local economy and create new green jobs, related to the biomass business, by leveraging indirect effects. That is, to shape the environment in order to attract investments in a certain branch. ‘Organic Energy’ received an investment from a project partner in Germany. The enterprise started with 100,000 EUR, but this still does not seem to be enough. One of the factory buildings is without a roof, which would be necessary to dry a higher amount of briquettes, Smolnichi explains. Nonetheless, he is proud of his achievements so far.

Straseni is a small town with village-like areas, 20km away from the capital.
© Marie-Thérèse Schreiber / Straseni is a small town with village-like areas, 20km away from the capital.

Too many biomass boilers lie idle

In 2018, ‘EcoVisio’ launched the ‘Moldo-German Energy Forum’ together with the ‘German-Moldovan Forum’, a project partner from Germany. Among other activities, a group of German energy experts was sent to Moldova to learn about the challenges that come with innovation, or with the absence of innovation. On September 21, 2018, the group stops by in Strășeni. Strășeni is a small commune, located 20 kilometres away from Chișinău, which accommodates 18,000 inhabitants. The yard of Strășeni’s Kindergarten No. 2, ‘Mugurel’, is quiet and the biomass boiler-room that is meant to transform the building into a warm and welcoming place lies idle. A sign on the facility’s door proudly proclaims: “This building is equipped with a biomass boiler room funded by the European Union”.

Valentina Casian, the mayor of Strășeni, discusses with the experts that the Kindergarten’s building is poorly insulated and therefore the boiler’s capacity is insufficient. Either the boiler’s capacity should have been assessed higher, which is not desirable in terms of energy efficiency, or the building itself needs to be insulated. Ultimately, the responsibility for insulation lies with the commune itself. However, the commune lacks the financial resources to tackle the task. Was the commune unable to comply with the preconditions of the investment? Or did the project administration in charge of planning procedures fail to notice the insulation requirements of and/or the lack of financial resources to do so?

Unfortunately, Strășeni is not the only case of funded infrastructure that is not in use. Evgheni Camenscic, project manager of the Moldo-German Energy Forum, is disappointed that “the investment in the energy infrastructure by the donors like the EU and others, is not effective”, even though the majority of mayors would show a big interest in renewable energy projects. Jutta Sorey, an engineer and freelance energy consultant from Lower Saxony, reports that many, though not all, of the biomass boilers they had seen on their trip “are so oversized, that they would be sufficient for an entire village, and the problem is that they are not even ready to use, not connected – there is no network! They are just laying idle”. Even if they were to be connected to a single property immediately, an oversized boiler would behave in a very inefficient way, which is called ‘clocking’: the boiler would heat-up and cool-down indefinitely and consume a lot of energy. Sorey concludes that “a boiler simply has to be customized”. Or properly connected to all major buildings of a village.

Better insulation is the key for short-term improvement

According to Jutta Sorey, another obstacle is that those pilot projects often only target a certain part of the population. Kindergartens and schools, equipped with modern facilities, are often located in more affluent districts within a commune. Accordingly, only the children of affluent parents enjoy the innovations. Also, energy consumption in private households is not properly tackled until today, as the MEBP’s targets first and foremost public buildings. If there was an effect of spreading the idea of installing biomass boilers at home as well, only wealthier households would be able to do so. This raises the question how the situation could be improved for everybody.

The first step to take might not be only to install biomass boilers for public buildings but also to educate the people how to properly insulate their private homes to increase energy efficiency and keep them all warm in winter. You have to start small and you have to consider that people here have only little money”, Jutta Sorey adds to her proclamations. “From my point of view, there is a significant lack of education here. You are able to prepare private, little houses way better for the cold winter. Not only at high-cost, but also with simple means”. Then she proposes a lot of ideas that came to her mind during the study trip – to insulate the roofs of private houses by using straw and loam, to build a second layer of windows. Just like she had to do it once in her student flat share in Germany. If necessary, by using blankets instead of glass panels. “It might also be a good idea to send a consultancy bus to the villages and give household-specific suggestions for improvements, as one of my colleagues proposed”, she concludes. 

View to the entrance and two out of three buildings in the Eco Village Rîșcova, a seminar centre and living place.

© Marie-Thérèse Schreiber / View to the entrance and two out of three buildings in the Eco Village Rîșcova, a seminar centre and living place.

Change has to grow inside the communities

Focusing even more on education and on specific measures that aim at activating all citizens on a local level – that is what Evgheni Camenscic and Julian Gröger advocate for. In Rîșcova, a small village 27 kilometers from the capital, Julian Gröger and his wife, Valeria Svart-Gröger, founded an initiative which aims at achieving a sustainable community lifestyle, the ‘Eco Village Rîșcova’. Originally from Northern Germany, Gröger decided to relocate to Moldova and dedicate his life to the setting-up of a sustainability-thinking- and acting community of citizens. He calls his ultimate utopian vision for the region ‘Moldotopia’. A vision of people living in harmony with each other and the planet. To reach this goal, ‘EcoVisio’ conducts various educational activities in Rîșcova and elsewhere. Recently, they planted trees together. Reforestation, self-made.

“I believe it could work out, and if we find a few thousand people who think in the same direction and are a little ambitious and courageous – then we could become a model region”. Moldova has good soils and people who have retained a lot of knowledge in agriculture that has already faded in Western European countries. This was Julian’s response to the question, “Why Moldova?”. Here, the step to a sustainable way of life might be easier to take than in fully-industrialized countries. Also, in terms of overall energy consumption. Compared to fully-industrialized countries, Moldovans might get along with much less energy, which is a good thing when it comes to climate change and sustainability and is not necessarily linked to poverty. If it was up to Julian, every household would also produce its own energy in the future. As the solar potential is 40% higher in Moldova than for example in Germany, solar-panels on every house’s roof might be a promising idea. Sadly, it is still a long way to go to ‘Moldotopia’ – but paths have to be shaped and taken.

About the author

Marie-Thérèse Schreiber


Other publications

The locked door of a biomass boiler-room on the site of a Kindergarten in Strășeni. Marie-Thérèse Schreiber

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