David Heller, from Friends of the Earth Europe, recently visited Manavi in Georgia. He met with Friends of the Earth Georgia to discuss their ongoing work to bring communtiy-centred solutions to energy production within the country.
There is a new power station in Georgia. It is generating 1MW of power, and providing thousands of homes with hot water, heating and the energy needed for cooking. This is not a centralised power station, but distributed across hundreds of communities where Friends of the Earth Georgia has been installing solar collectors and other devices made from readily available materials.
1MW may not sound like a lot of energy. It’s about the same as can be generated by a medium-sized modern wind turbine. But in this country in the Caucasus region, that has historically been a gateway between Europe and Asia, this project is meeting the needs of rural communities who are facing energy poverty, destruction of forests, and other environmental problems.
Manavi – a village of 1000 households in the wine growing region of Kakheti in eastern Georgia – is one of the areas where solar collectors are being installed. Mr. Aleksandre Zuliashivili is a disabled pensioner and artist. He and his wife Elene Nemsiashvili had a solar collector installed almost 2 years ago. Aleksandre explained: “The solar collector has made a big difference to our lives. I used to spend more than half of my pension on electricity every month, and we collected wood from the local forest. The solar collector has reduced my electricity bill by more than half, and we no longer need to use wood.”
The project grew out of an assessment of the needs of rural communities in some of the 46 local areas across the country where FoE Georgia is working. Workshops and seminars were organised to talk with people about the problems they faced, and how they could have a role in addressing them. The solar collectors are helping to reduce bills for heating, and also stopping the illegal deforestation of local forests that takes place to provide firewood. For the first time, people are able to play an active role in decisions about their own energy supply. The projects also provide a demonstration of just what is possible to meet energy needs in an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable way.
Nodar Kevkhishvili is one of 3 people in the village who has been trained as part of the Friends of the Earth Georgia project to train other people in the village in how to construct and install solar collectors. He said: “I’ve trained around 30 or 40 people up to now. We’re exchanging ideas, and developing new models for the collectors. More people are becoming interested all the time, especially when they see other people in the village have a solar collector. At first it was the more wealthy people, but when we showed the poorer people the money they could save on their heating bills, they also became interested. It’s hard to keep up with demand, and if the FoE Georgia project continues, I think we could get solar collectors on about 95% of houses in the village.”
Solar collectors are just one the solutions that the organisation is providing to meet the needs of rural communities. They have also been installing biogas digesters, solar cookers and energy efficient stoves. Building straw bale houses, which are highly insulated, demonstrates the possibility of higher energy efficiency and less need for heating. Fruit and vegetable driers are boosting the production and distribution of local food.
At the same time as the country is importing most of its electricity for domestic consumption from Russia, it is exporting electricity to Turkey generated by mega hydro-electric projects. New large scale hydro electric projects are being planned that would flood areas of rich biodiversity, and displace many villages. Friends of the Earth Georgia has been organising the local communities threatened by the dam projects, informing them about the plans, and of their right to be consulted. They have also produced an independent Environmental Impact Assessment of the dam projects, with the help of experts in many scientific disciplines. The days of dictatorship and armed conflict are thankfully behind Georgia, and corruption is becoming much less widespread. Yet the government lacks institutional capacity to develop and implement effective policies on energy and the environment and sometimes wrong decisions are considered as the best solutions for certain problems. In this context, giving people control of their own energy supply is a very powerful idea.
As well as providing an answer to local needs for energy and halting biodiversity loss, these energy solutions could help to shape a more ambitious climate change policy for Georgia. Friends of the Earth Georgia hopes that their local energy scheme will be included in the government’s Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action plan (NAMA), which will be drafted this year. This would allow Friends of the Earth Georgia to expand the scheme. And that could really help bring power to the people.