Power to the people

The issue of renewable energy in Greece has run into the same set of obstacles that prevent the country from solving old problems and from preparing for the challenges of the future: intractable bureaucracy, government indifference and public suspicion. Greece, with its abundant sun, wind and water power, could be a leader in the use of clean, renewable energy. Instead, it is the most heavily dependant on oil and gas imports of all EU member states. The reasons are many, but perhaps the most decisive one is that people at the grassroots level have not understood the benefits of harnessing their country’s innate energy-producing capabilities for their personal gain.

This indifference does not come cheap. Last Tuesday, the Public Power Corporation announced that despite two tariff hikes and a 13.2 percent increase in sales to 5.82 billion euros in 2008, the company showed a loss of 305.9 million euros last year. This is the result of 53 percent of revenues going toward paying for fuel imports, for energy purchases and for CO2 emissions trading. The country’s biggest company is dependant on oil and gas imports – with their great price fluctuations – or on locally mined lignite, whose use forces PPC to make hugely expensive payments. As PPC President and Managing Director Takis Athanassopoulos noted, if it weren’t for the fuel and energy import prices and the CO2 emissions, the company would have shown a 400-million-euro profit. In addition, PPC shares dropped 7 percent over the past six months and has seen its long-term credit rating drop. None of this is good for taxpayers, who will be called on to foot the bill sooner or later.

And if consumers are unable to see the benefits of the country’s freeing itself from the grip of imported and domestic “fossil fuels,” one would expect government – at the national but also at the local level – to be making every effort to promote the use of renewable energy sources. So far, however, Greece is a long way off from its target of meeting 18 percent of its total energy needs with renewable sources by 2020. The target figure implies that 35 percent of electricity production will come from renewable sources. This figure now stands at 10 percent, most of which is from hydroelectric projects and not from new sources.

A major reason for the slow adoption of renewable sources is the paper chase that investors must embark on to get permits from state departments which are either ignorant or at odds with each other. Then there is the corruption that slips in whenever such confusion of laws and responsibilities stands in the way of investments. Billions of euros in investments planned by local and foreign investors remain untapped, thanks to bureaucracy, lack of interest and corruption.

The government must simplify procedures for investments and educate a public that likes to profess its environmental sensitivities but would rather live with current problems than commit itself to solutions. The production of energy through renewable sources will pick up only when municipal and provincial authorities realize that they can improve their finances and provide for their citizens by taking an active interest in producing energy at the local level. This will lead to wiser waste management (through the use of biomass as fuel, for example), an increase in local government revenues through the production of energy that will go into the national grid, and citizens’ understanding that they have a direct, personal stake in energy production through renewable sources. Only if people understand the direct benefits to their pockets and their quality of life, will they force the change that too few people seem interested in seeing.

Editorial in AthensPlus, 27 March 2009