Georgia is rich in high mountains and over 25,000 rivers. Sensibly, the country is capitalising on this geographical advantage to gain more energy security and increase its renewable energy output.
Investing in hydroelectric power plants is a priority, since the untapped potential of this clean energy source, once developed, could rid Georgia of its dependence on fossil fuel imports and could boost its energy exports to neighbouring countries and Europe.
Georgia’s latest such plant was constructed on the Tergi river, in the Kazbegi region, by JSC Dariali Energy, the majority of which is owned by private investors, with the support of a US$ 80 million loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
With support from Austria, the EBRD and Dariali Energy are planting a forest to offset the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of a new hydropower plant in Georgia.
The plant has an installed capacity of 108MW per hour, the largest of any post Soviet hydropower plants constructed in the country. Built to the best international technical and environmental standards, thanks also to the support of the EBRD, the hydropower plant is an example to similar endeavours in Georgia.
For instance, here, tunnel-boring machines were introduced for the first time as an alternative to the drill and blast technique to excavate medium to long tunnels.
But what makes this project even more remarkable is the launch of a reforestation programme which aims to capture CO2 and balance the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with the plant’s construction and operation. This will be the world’s first carbon neutral hydropower plant.
This is achieved by planting and growing a forest – or carbon sink, as it’s called due to its function - in the river basin that feeds the hydropower scheme.
The reforestation plan, funded by the government of Austria, started a year ago with the selection of the most appropriate sites. The choice then fell on seven different tree species, including the local pine, which are being grown from seeds in a nursery close by.
The planting operation started in October and is covering an exploratory small strip of land. This first trial area is expected to be extended to up to 160 ha (equivalent to about 140 football pitches) with around 400,000 trees.
The various sites that will be reforested were selected together with the population and with the assistance of reforestation specialists, so that the carbon sink also helps restoring biodiversity and protects the valleys against erosion and avalanches.
“This pilot is a very important step to potentially replicate the same carbon neutral approach to other hydropower sector across the region where we invest and beyond. This is in line with the Bank’s sustainable approach to projects with respect to environmental and social impact,” said Pierre Biedermann, EBRD Associate Director, Environment and Sustainability.
“Austria is strongly committed to support the development of sustainable energy and the cooperation with the EBRD allows us to take concrete steps in the region where the Bank invests,” said Leander Treppel of the Federal Ministry of Finance of Austria.
“This ground-breaking carbon-neutral project is an excellent example of the impact we are seeking to advance the global green agenda and counteract the effects of climate change and we hope it will be successfully replicated elsewhere.”
In Stepansminda, the nearby village, local people have been able to follow the operation not just by reading the news but by receiving information directly from Dariali Energy thanks to regular meetings with representatives of all the project’s stakeholders.
The result of this cooperation can also be seen in the number of jobs it creates, both during the plant’s construction and reforestation, and in terms of permanent jobs at the plant, once it becomes fully operational.
The prolonged power cuts of the past still loom over Georgians’ memories but projects like this help the country look to the future.
Silently but steadily, the forest grows. It will take 40 years for this green lung to reach its full maturity. Long before that, the EBRD loan will be fully repaid and Georgia will enjoy more clean energy and another spot in which to reconnect with nature.