Tuzla stands for Transition

Europe’s heating sector continues to be entirely dominated by fossil fuels. According to the latest Global Renewables’ Status Report , few countries and cities are making progress in planning and supporting progressive, locally adapted solutions that work for citizens, for the economy, and for the environment. Well, not entirely: An indomitable city in Bosnia and Herzegovina aspires to become the role model for the heat transition in the Balkans. Tuzla.

When people hear the name Salt Lake City, most think of the capital of the U.S. state of Utah and its world-famous lake. In the Balkans, people think of Tuzla, the cultural and economic heart of northeastern Bosnia. Tuzla means “salt”, and the city is at least 5,800 years older than its American namesake. This makes it one of Europe’s longest continuously inhabited places – and it has seen many shifts in culture and technology.

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s third largest city with its 110,000 inhabitants has an impressive industrial heritage. Apart from the ancient salt mining which has literally sunk the city further and further into the ground, Tuzla has had a reputation for its huge coal and lignite plants that have been powering the economy and filling the skies with smoke.

Today, Tuzla stands for transition. The salt mines in the city center have been turned into Europe’s first and only urban salt-lake, which draws tens of thousands of visitors every day for its medicinal properties, and which has quickly helped Tuzla’s tourism and service sectors to surpass traditional industry. However, the transformation of the energy system is an even bigger industrial challenge yet that the city has taken on.

New hydro, wind and PV based power plants

Tuzla is the main industrial machine of Bosnia and one of its economic strongholds. “We started our District Heating System with cogeneration units in 1983,” explains Suljo Sarić, Assistant Director for Technical Affairs at District heating company Tuzla. The combined heat and power (CHP) plant is still the biggest in the entire country. JP Elektroprivreda Bosne i Hercegovine (EPBiH), operator of the plants and the biggest electricity producer in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is well aware that the lignite burned at the power plant in Tuzla will have to be replaced in the not-so-distant future by more climate-friendly alternatives, if the European Union climate goals are to be met.

For electricity production, we are working on new hydro, wind and PV based power plants”, explains Ajla Merzić, Lead Expert Associate for Power Unit Development in EPBiH. “Old lignite units will be shut down, latest by end of 2023, namely units 3 and 4 in Tuzla”. Unit 6 in Tuzla is being converted into cogeneration mode, while the company works on partial replacement of coal by biofuels. Furthermore, EPBiH finished its first wind power plant, Podvelezie, 48 MW, early this year, and plans to add over 30 MW in a photovoltaic power plant at the same location.

The company is also developing the wind farm projects Vlašić in Travnik and Bitovna in Konjic, cca. 50 MW and 60 MW, respectively. A very start of the art project is to transform five former open pit coal mines and ash and slag dumps into photovoltaic power plants all together at an installed capacity of 200 MW. All these projects are to be put into operation until 2025.

Tuzla’s heating sector could become a model for the Balkans

Bosnia and Herzegovina make no difference from the rest of Europe as the share of renewable electricity is rapidly growing. But fossil fuels continue to dominate the heating sector on the entire continent. According to the latest Global Renewables’ status report, few countries and cities are making progress in planning and supporting progressive, locally adapted heating solutions that work for citizens, for the economy, for the environment, and for the long term. Well, Tuzla’s projects have the potential to become a role model for the heat transition in the Balkans.

Merzic explains that district heating can make a massive contribution through actions in five key areas:

  1. Pollutants can be cut through desulphurization projects, renewable sources share increase in the heating sector, as well as a decommissioning program of fossil fuel fired units.
  2. A new billing system: In Bosnia Herzegovina, most customers still pay per surface heated and not per consumption. But ambitious emission targets require lower temperatures in the system, which will only be possible with significantly improved insulation as well as the integration of renewables such as solar heat. The Bosnian government is currently drafting a necessary heat law.
  3. Cogeneration systems need to be modernized.
  4. Coal-fired CHP can be improved by the use of biomass and the integration of solar thermal. Both co-firing of biomass and complete retrofitting are being considered. But: “Not all kinds of biomass are sustainable, and so far we are lacking regulation of the biomass chain within the country,” explains Merzić. Solar thermal could be interesting if hot water supply were included in the system. “That would be a good combination in summertime, if the supply of hot tap water were included, which is not the case today. We are also investigating the use of geothermal heat and heat pumps.”
  5. More buildings need to be connected to the DH network: “People often burn anything they find, where they are not connected to the DH network,” describes Anes Kazagić, Head of the Strategic Development Department in EPBiH c how energy poverty contributes to high emissions. “But a government scheme to attract new customers in Tuzla is already in place,” he says.

Certain improvements are only possible with the integration of renewable heat-based solutions into the system. A key to this is international cooperation. Tuzla is one of eight European cities that are pooling expertise and research in the “Upgrade DH” project co-funded by the European Union. “It is very important for us to be able to exchange with the other Upgrade DH partners,” says Merzić. “We got beneficial input resulting in very concrete co-operations, for example in hydraulic questions. The relations and ties which we have developed during the Upgrade DH will continue and are of high strategic value for our plans to transition towards the new generation of climate-friendly district heating”.

Kazagić adds “We hope that the process we have started and are undergoing now in Tuzla can serve as inspiration to other countries in the Balkans – district heating cities like Belgrade, Skopje, or Sarajevo are facing similar challenges. And we want to be a role model in the transition from fossil fuels to renewables.