This article is part of our special report The road ahead: challenges and opportunities for Europe’s regions.
Mario Rajn, the mayor of Križevci, a medieval city of 20,000 people northeast of Croatia’s capital is pushing for his city to become energy independent by 2030. He explains what actions have been taken so far.
“We wanted our citizens to embrace solar energy as much as possible,” Rajn said.
The city started its first pilot project two years ago, offering its citizens the chance to invest into using solar energy for public administration buildings, at a 4,5% annual interest rate, considerably higher than the 2% they could obtain from banks.
The city has pledged to pay back the citizens’ investment in 10 years with interest, becoming the owner of the solar farm in a decade. Inhabitant-investors saw the first returns at the end of last year.
The idea of engaging residents has worked. In 2018 it took 10 days to crowdfund €33,000, raising a similar amount the following year took 48 hours.
The two pilot solar plants are roughly 30 kW each, but the city is now planning to up the ante with a 5MW solar park. A fifth of the project will be financed by citizens with Croatia’s national power company as the largest co-investor.
The big photovoltaic plant would cover about a quarter of the city’s energy needs, and Rajn says that the combination of about 1 in 7 households having their own solar panels by 2027 and exploiting the area’s geothermal energy, could see the city becoming energy independent by 2030.
After using gas exploration drill holes from the 1980s that found thermal water to conduct the first studies, Križevci now hopes to generate 5MW of geothermal energy for heating.
The city got €250,000 for exploration from HealingPlaces, a project aiming at a more sustainable development of spas led by Poland’s Central Mining Institute and financed by an EU cohesion policy programme that encourages cooperation across borders in Central Europe.
Rajn said the plan is to start building a new drill hole to access the areas geothermal potential in 2022, hopefully with at least partial financing from private investors to cover the investment of about €3 million.
The mayor said the city would “guarantee the investors that if they invest in geothermal heating, public buildings will use that energy for heating and for cooling during summer.”
“Actually our local budget is like €8 million, we are quite a small town,” Rajn said.
“We are a deeply centralised country, so a lot of money goes to the central state. That’s why we are looking for all the European projects that we can use.”
Križevci has received a country-wide award for being the city to best utilise and access EU funds two years in a row.
These projects put Križevci on the map both nationally and internationally, and the small city — alongside major urban centres and capitals of Skopje, Sarajevo, Maribor and Niš — became one of the Future Cities of South East Europe, a project led by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s Knowledge and Innovation Communities (EIT Climate-KIC).
The participating cities will aim to bring air quality within World Health Organization (WHO) recommended limits by 2023, and have net-zero greenhouse gas emission economies by 2030, as well as reduce yearly the impacts of heat and flooding in their communities.
Rajn identified frequent tax code changes at the national level as one of the main obstacles to getting private investors to commit.
“Investors want safety and they want to know how to calculate the next 10 years. They expect a return on their investment in the next 10 years, not in the next 20 years.”
“We have a lot of investment in our country in the last 20 years in the tourism sector, especially in condos and infrastructure.”
“I think that came to an end, especially due to the COVID-19 crisis, and one of the biggest opportunities for Croatia is in investing in green energy. Our country must embrace it a lot faster, the world is changing rapidly, as we have seen in 2020.”
Asked what Brussels should do to help along the transition of towns like Križevci, Rajn suggested increasing the percentage of funds cities can access directly, and not through their national governments.
“The cities, we are the atoms in this whole organism of the EU. We are witness to the changes needed on a daily basis.”
Rajn added that cities can implement the changes faster compared to regional administrations.
“I think that the EU must allocate some of these funds, like the recovery fund, directly to the cities themselves,” he said.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]