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Going it alone with energy

Youthful mayor of Avrig in Sibiu county aims to create Romania’s first energy independent town, reports Rupert Wolfe Murray

September 2009 - From the Print Edition

Situated 20 kilometres to the south of Sibiu, the town of Avrig boasts a top hiking destination with virgin forests and the vast Fagaras mountain range, the biggest massiv in Romania. The town once boasted a large arms industry, including a plant built by Skoda, and still has a profitable machine building factory, but unemployment is high and the town is still struggling for a new identity in post-Communist Romania.
But now the 30 year-old Mayor Arnold Klingeis intends to put Avrig on the map as the first energy independent town in Romania.
This is not just talk, as many public sector plans unfortunately are. The youthful and German-educated Klingeis has agreements with investors for big solar, biomass and biogas projects, as well as a small hydro installation.
The mayor’s vision for Avrig is based on the idea that renewable energy will be the industry of the future and reflects the fact that the supply of oil and gas cannot be taken for granted in the medium term. Avrig’s aim, which the local council is preparing to approve, is to become one of Romania’s leading centres for renewable energy by 2020 and to become energy independent by 2030.
This should result in new jobs, lower utility bills and a town with a reputation as a good place to invest, work, live and visit.
Avrig is keen to attract new investments in the renewable energy industry and to become a Romanian cluster in this regard. The most impressive project in the pipeline is the 64 hectare “solar energy business park” under development with a German company. The park will consist of a number of big industrial sheds which will be made available to incoming investors. The innovative part of the project is that each of these sheds will be completely covered by photovoltaic solar panels, thus generating enough electricity to power normal operations. The concept is “the first of its kind in Europe” according to Klingeis.
Avrig’s other renewable energy projects include plans with a large Austrian utility to develop a 1 megawatt biomass CHP (Combined Heat and Power) plant as well as a biogas plant. These units will provide Avrig with low cost heat (hot water and steam) which will be utilised by industrial clients and local citizens, as well as electricity, which will be sold to the national grid. The aim is to produce enough renewable energy (heat and electricity) to supply the town, although the electricity generated will be sold to the grid, as is the usual standard practice.

Transylvanian roots
Arnold Klingeis left a profitable tourism business to stand for the mayorship of Avrig and its 14,000 people, “for the challenge” he says. His family has roots in Avrig, but left just after the 1989 revolution, along with most of the German minority in Transylvania. While most of these “Romanian Germans” have remained in Germany, a few enterprising families returned, some of whom did very well. The Klingeis family came back to Romania in 2000 and invested in Balea Lac, a dramatic location on Romania’s highest road, the Transfagarasan Highway, which twists across the Fagaras mountains. The Balea Lac Pensiune is located at a 2,000-metre altitude and is only accessible in winter by cable car, which the Klingeis family runs. They also build an “Ice Hotel” every winter, from blocks of ice cut from the lake.
Considering the slow culture in the Romanian public sector, it is a real challenge for a dynamic manager from the private sector to take over a town hall and expect to change things quickly. The rules of the game are very bureaucratic and often illogical, all of which consumes a lot of energy and time. A long-term vision is needed as well as political support, which Klingeis gets from the German Forum, a political formation that controls the city and county of Sibiu. The advantage of this forum is that it is politically non-aligned, which means all the big parties can afford to support its initiatives.
But how does one implement a vision like this in a town where, one assumes, there is a high level of cynicism and a low level of awareness about environmental issues? After all, the Romanian government lacks a convincing vision about renewable energy, although it has passed numerous laws as part of its EU obligations. There are a number of hurdles that need to be overcome if any progress can be made: the staff of the town hall need to be motivated and need to believe in the vision. The local population need to be informed about the opportunities and costs that renewable energy represents, and investors need to be attracted to a town that is relatively unknown.
But the mayor has a chance. He has an abundance of energy, which is a key ingredient for running a town. In Avrig Town Hall there is a continual buzz of activity and his key staff run around like brokers at the London Stock Exchange. Luckily for them, Klingeis is often away from Avrig, meeting investors and partners in Sibiu, Bucharest, Germany, Austria and the UK. But he realises that if he is to succeed it can only come from building up a good team. “I focus a lot on my people” says Klingeis, “I try and understand their strengths and weaknesses; try and give them the support they need. I also push them harder than they are used to, as I know they are talented and are capable of more.”
Educating the citizens of Avrig about the benefits of renewable energy will also be a challenge, as there has been so little public information about this issue in Romania. Most citizens in Avrig either commute to low paid jobs in Sibiu city or work small plots of land and have relatively low incomes - and poor people everywhere tend to be suspicious of new ideas. But due to its industrial heritage, there are a lot of technical skills in the town and a technical high school with a good reputation. There are agricultural and forestry resources, but most of the agriculture here is rather unproductive and, as with most of Romania, small local farmers find it impossible to get their produce to market. The mayor is hoping that big new investments in renewable energy will resolve these economic difficulties by creating new green collar jobs.
The area that the mayor seems most confident is relations with investors. This is where his background in business and his fluent grasp of French, English and German prove useful. During my visit to Avrig I met a Norwegian investor representing a hydro electric company who said “dealing with Mr Klingeis is a pleasure as he understands business, is straightforward and knows we have to get results. Dealing with mayors of other locations with hydro potential, and there are lots of them, was frustrating.” This Norwegian investor is in the process of developing two small hydro electric plants on the Avrig river.
Mayor Klingeis is also applying for EU Structural Funds but he is not relying completely on these sources, which can be very time consuming and bureaucratic. “EU funds are welcome,” he says, “but they are also slow. I welcome the dynamism and speed at which investors can engage. I hope to present myself as a partner they can do business with.”

Rupert Wolfe Murray advises the mayor of Avrig about renewable energy and communication issues.

There is 1 comment:

Hans Schuller: on 2010-10-20 02:39:52
Wishing you well Arnold, lot's of potential there!

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