When the war in Ukraine began in 2022, it accelerated an ongoing energy shift: European nations trying to reduce their dependence on Russian gas rushed to build up the continent's renewable energy sources. Among those trying to make that switch happen in the most sustainable way is Dragana Mileusnić. Mileusnić directs The Nature Conservancy's programs in Southeast Europe—a region covering eight countries, including the western Balkans, whose recent history has been shaped by war, austerity and slower development than much of the rest of Europe. In this interview, she tells how she and others at TNC are helping European countries map where to place renewable energy to reduce potential impacts on the environment.
Ginger Strand: You direct The Nature Conservancy’s program in Southeast Europe, including the western Balkans. What made TNC so interested in working in this area?
Dragana Mileusnić: The freshwater biodiversity in the region is globally unique. There are many species that appear in the Balkans and nowhere else. There are wild rivers and forests that have survived to a much greater extent than anywhere else in Europe. Most of the rivers in Europe have been dammed or channelized—for example, put into concrete riverbeds—whereas, in the Balkans, the rivers are still mostly untouched. That’s what we’re working on protecting.
The reality is that given the area’s slower development, the energy sector—including hydropower—has developed more slowly. So now this is one of the last places in Europe where there is a lot of interest in new hydropower. At one point, an analysis [in 2017] showed interest in building 2,000 to 3,000 dams—mainly small structures that would do a lot of damage to rivers without actually creating a lot of electricity.
GS: How is TNC trying to protect those rivers with all the interest in small dams and hydropower?
DM: We co-created a campaign called United for Rivers—a group of NGOs based in five countries and focused on empowering local communities to be active safeguards of their rivers. We help them develop economies that depend on rivers, things like tourism and agriculture, even the nascent fly-fishing industry. That way people can stay linked to the river instead of moving out of the region.
At the same time, this region is still heavily coal-dependent. So we really need to support accelerated development of the solar and wind sectors so that a transition [to renewable-energy production] can take place. We began working with local energy experts and stakeholders to develop renewable-energy siting plans.
GS: What do those plans look like?
DM: They are spatial plans—essentially maps identifying areas where solar and wind can happen without causing conflict, or with minimal conflict with other industries and wildlife. We started with a pilot project to ask: Can we develop renewable energy and also preserve nature? We used one county in Croatia as an example.
We worked with local experts who do energy planning for the Croatian government, coupling them with global scientific experts in the U.S. We also involved local stakeholders.
This pilot showed that we could develop more than one gigawatt of solar and wind [power] in just this one county—without going into any protected areas. That would meet over half of Croatia’s national target for solar and wind power. This led to the Croatian government asking us to develop the same study at the national level.
GS: Has the renewable-energy siting program moved beyond Croatia?
DM: Yes! In Serbia we were able to do local stakeholder engagement in the field, organizing roundtables in economic centers and getting feedback from municipal authorities and local NGOs, as well as experts in nature conservation, agriculture, tourism and so on. We are also duplicating the approach in North Macedonia and Montenegro.
Then when the war in Ukraine started in 2022, our work accelerated at a pace we couldn’t have foreseen.
GS: How so?
SM: Last year when the war started, the EU realized that they need to tackle dependence on Russian gas. One of the key responses was to accelerate the transition to renewable energy. But renewables were already developing in most of Europe at such a high pace that environmental and social conflicts with renewable energy were emerging. Developers were finding that those who try to do projects in haste often ended up in court, or faced pushback from local communities that can delay projects by three to five years. So both the governments and the industry began to see the value in investing some up-front time in doing site assessments. They decided, as we like to say, to go smart to go fast.
As far as we know, TNC was the first organization doing these comprehensive assessments in Europe and thus demand for our work exploded. We suddenly had interest from across Europe in how our renewable-energy siting methodology works. Our Balkans program became a poster child. So now we are growing a whole renewable-energy Europe program, and strategic renewable-energy siting has become one of the key priorities for TNC in Europe.
GS: Last year the team even signed a memorandum of understanding with Eurelectric, an association of national electricity providers across 31 European nations. That memorandum agreed to the sharing of information and best practices for renewable-energy siting.
SM: It’s a great example of how the work we started in the Balkans, and have been building up over five years, now has implications that are Europe-wide.
GS: You seem passionate about this work and about the Balkan region as a whole. What is the source of this passion?
SM: I was born and raised in Serbia. I’m a concrete block girl: I grew up in Belgrade, in a part of the city built during [President Josip Broz] Tito’s time, when it was all Soviet-style concrete blocks. But this place was a 10-minute walk from the confluence of the Sava and the Danube Rivers, where there were big parks and greenery. So even though you’re in these concrete blocks, the nature is there. Part of every day is walking by the river, or riding a bike, and social life gravitates a lot to those rivers. I was always passionate about the environment.
I feel almost like a connector between the Balkans and all the expertise, history and amazing work of TNC in the U.S. The source of my passion for the region is my origins, and contributing to my home region. People from the Balkans, our families are very close; we are very connected to each other, very passionate. You can leave the Balkans, but the Balkans cannot leave you.
About the Creators
Ginger Strand is a writer who has written for The Iowa Review, The New England Review and The New York Times, and is a contributing editor for Orion. She lives in the Catskill Mountains.
Ciril Jazbec is a Slovenian freelance documentary photographer whose work focuses on communities impacted by globalization and climate change.