Unclean energy: The Kosovar who would own the sun

A single businessman in Kosovo stands behind six companies reaping millions of euros from the sale of solar energy in violation of anti-monopoly rules, a BIRN investigation has found.

Sunlight glinted off row upon row of solar panels stretching into the hills around the village of Madanaj in western Kosovo.

 It was October 2018 and the country, a little over a decade old, was unveiling its first solar park a few kilometres from the site where Serb security forces executed 376 ethnic Albanian civilians in April 1999 in the worst mass killing of the Kosovo war.

If the massacre at Meja marked the darkest moment in Kosovo’s quest for independence, the new solar park was surely a shining example of how far it had come since independence from Serbia in 2008, of its technological advancement and ambition to be free of the coal-fired power plants that have clogged the lungs of generations of Kosovars.

That might have been the case, if only the cards had not been stacked to benefit one very rich man, the ultimate owner of the solar park and who now stands to reap some 27 million euros of taxpayers’ money over the next 12 years in violation of rules drawn up to prevent the emergence of monopolies in the energy sector.

While the rules in Kosovo stipulate that no single investor can produce more than three megawatts of solar energy, BIRN can reveal that one man – Blerim Devolli – stands behind six companies awarded rights to produce a combined 16.7 MW, more than half of Kosovo’s total solar power production.

And each of these companies will receive a guaranteed price from the state – a so-called ‘feed-in tariff’ –between two and three times higher than the going market rate under a decision by the industry regulator, the Energy Regulatory Office, or ERO.

The ERO told BIRN it does not have the mandate to check the ownership of companies it does business with. On May 12, Devolli’s holding company, Devolli Group, rejected the findings of this investigation, which was first aired on April 30 on BIRN’s Jeta ne Kosove current affairs programme. Devolli did not respond to several interview requests for this story.

Nevertheless, prosecutors are probing whether to launch a criminal investigation on the basis of BIRN’s findings. Critics say that what should have been a story of clean energy and new beginnings has become a familiar tale of dirty dealings.

Corruption warnings ignored

Devolli’s business interests do not stop at solar energy. 

Via the Devolli Group holding company, the 48-year-old makes money from the sale of beer, fruit juice, dairy products, water and a virtual mobile operator. His brother, Shkelqim, presides over Devolli Corporations, which has interests in shock absorbers, television, customs and coffee. Other businesses are registered under Devolli Holding SH.P.K and Devolli Logistic System ShpK. 

Devolli’s owns a Range Rover with diplomatic licence plates thanks to his status as a consul in Albania, yacht anchored in the Montenegrin tourist town of Budva.

He is also, however, the ultimate owner of six companies registered in European Union-member Malta, according to the results of a four-month investigation.

Devolli’s dealings in solar power date back to November 4, 2014, when the brewery he bought the same year – Birra Peja – applied for a licence to produce solar energy. Six weeks later, another company, Frigo Food Kosova, also sought a licence.

The ERO granted both licences on May 19, 2016, handing them a whopping feed-in tariff of 136.4 euros per MW, which, according to the Vienna-based Energy Community Secretariat – an international body working to extend the EU’s internal energy market rules to neighbouring countries – is three times the current market price.

Feed-in, or incentive, tariffs are fixed prices at which the ERO guarantees to investors that it will buy all the energy they produce over a 12-year period, a price passed on to consumers via their electricity bills.

Exposing Devolli’s hidden companies