Kosovo heading for new power crisis

PRISTINA, Jul 29, 2000 -- (AFP) Kosovo will suffer a new power crisis this winter made worse by the late payment of bills by the province's UN-led administration and its failure foresee a critical fuel shortage, a senior European official told AFP.

Hugues Mingarelli, director of the European Agency for Reconstruction, which provides the bulk of the funds for the development of Kosovo's creaking electricity industry, said the province was facing a serious shortfall.

Efforts to strike deals to import power from abroad had been hampered, he said, because the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) had not paid previous electricity bills.

"Up until now we have been bad payers and there is a backlog of unpaid contracts," he said Thursday.

Irene Mingasson, a spokeswoman for the UNMIK department responsible for reconstruction said that the largest bill, that with Macedonia, had now been paid.

Mingarelli said that power could eventually be found by Europe bringing political pressure to bear on the potential suppliers -- Greece is an EU member, Bulgaria a candidate for membership and Macedonia and Albania wish to maintain good relations.

Potentially more serious, he said, was a desperate shortage of coal to feed Kosovo's own power stations. It was only discovered two months ago, when the province's reserves were already all but used up, that a vast "overburden" of earth and soil would have to be stripped before open casting could begin, he said.

"It will take months. I can't understand why this was not realized before," he said.

Mingasson accepted that the supply of coal, which in Kosovo is of low quality, had been a long term problem and was being worked on.

Mingarelli explained that his agency was not responsible for energy policy in Kosovo, despite providing the vast bulk of the funding.

"If they don't take the right policy decisions at UNMIK, then our development programs are almost useless," he said.

Peak demand this winter in the province of around 1.9 million people is expected to be 650 megawatts, Mingarelli said.

If reconstruction work goes according to plan, Kosovo's aging power plants might just produce 450 megawatts, but there is a very real possibility this figure could fall as low as 200, he said.

In addition to the shortage of coal, work could also be delayed by "demotivated" local power workers, who had been "poorly and irregularly paid."

It was also far from clear how much more work needed to be done on the power stations and estimates of how much power would eventually be needed could leap if district heating systems were not repaired by winter.

Another complicating factor was the tense relationship between Serbia and the international community, he said. For technical reasons engineers working on power supplies in Kosovo would need the cooperation of Belgrade "to balance" flows of power coming in from outside Yugoslavia.

"Unless UNMIK reaches an agreement with the Serbs they will have difficulties bringing in electricity," Mingarelli said.

Power supplies in Kosovo are already overstretched and every day electricity cuts out for hours at a time. This situation is likely to get worse in August when the start of a repair program will require some power units to be shut down for weeks at a time.

The European Reconstruction Agency provides a 60 million euro (56 million dollar) budget for energy sector reconstruction.

Original article