Greece, lagging behind in green energies in Europe, boosts renewable energies | Climate News

Acheloos, Greece – In some of the most remote gorges in western Greece, at the end of roads that meander like thin intestines, are the country’s largest white elephant projects.

The Mesohora Dam, completed 20 years ago, overlooks a ravine carved by the Acheloos River, but its reservoir is empty.

Downstream is the unfinished Sykia Dam.

When the work crews left in 2009, its clay core stood at a fraction of the 150 meters (492 feet) height it is supposed to reach, the gravel buttresses even lower.

Both dams were supposed to produce at least 890 gigawatt hours per year (GWh), enough to power tens of thousands of homes, but the Acheloos continues to flow around them through bypass tunnels.

Indeed, Mesohora and Sykia, as well as two other hydroelectric dams whose construction had not yet started, were part of a dual function system. They were designed to supply huge reservoirs – almost three-quarters of a billion tonnes between them – to divert 600 million tonnes of water each year to the Thessaly Plain, Greece’s largest agricultural region. A 17 km (10.5 mile) tunnel dug for this purpose under the Pindus Mountains, but never lined with concrete, is now in danger of collapsing.

Unsustainable agricultural practices have led Thessaly to pump its underground aquifer almost dry, and desertification now threatens this region of one million people. Since 2000, the Council of State, the highest administrative court in Greece, has ruled on several occasions that the cultural and environmental impacts of the Acheloos diversion had not been properly assessed, resulting in the work being stopped. It left over $ 1 billion in taxpayer dollars literally swallowed up.

Today, amid rising temperatures linked to climate change and a requirement to meet clean energy targets, the conservative New Democracy government is telling Al Jazeera it is relaunching dam projects in as part of a plan to meet both Greece’s decarbonization goals and its irrigation needs.

“The work of the High Acheloos will be completed within the next five to six years, based on new and improved studies,” the Environment Ministry told Al Jazeera in written responses.

The upper reaches of the Acheloos River is also known as the Aspropotamos, or White River, due to the limestone pebbles that form the river bed. [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently said the government will launch public-private project finance for more than $ 1 billion in irrigation infrastructure works, including dams, lakes and pipeline networks.

“The government plans to build 21 large irrigation works,” Mitsotakis told an assembly of regional prefects on November 9. , which is water.

Acheloos projects are not included in the current funding cycle.

Turn to the sun and the wind

Given its generous sun and wind, Greece is lagging behind when it comes to green energy in Europe.

In 2019, it produced only 29% of its electricity from renewable sources, against a European average of 34%.

Portugal, a country of similar wealth and population to Greece, already produces two-thirds of its electricity from renewable sources.

Greece’s difficulty is in part due to the fact that its main energy producer, the Public Power Corporation (PPC), fought tooth and nail for 20 years to keep coal as its main source of energy. This left the production of electricity from renewables and gas entirely in the hands of private producers. The result of PPC’s policy has been that its share of the electricity market has increased from 100% to 40% in two decades.

Today, the PPC is turning around and energizing the green energy revolution.

The start of this turnaround came in September 2019, when Mitsotakis announced that the PPC would phase out coal by 2028. At the United Nations General Assembly in September, he suggested that now could happen as soon as possible. 2025.

“We have a very poor quality [coal], and we have to burn a lot of it to produce the energy we need, ”explains energy expert Miltiadis Aslanoglou. “Natural gas produces about 300 to 350 grams of carbon dioxide per megajoule. Good quality charcoal produces about 800 grams of carbon dioxide per megajoule. Our lignite coal produces 1200 grams of megajoule of carbon dioxide at best. “

Greece’s coal-burning Ptolemaida I-IV power plant is due to be decommissioned by 2023 as part of broader plans to phase out use of the power source over the next decade [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

This has led to skyrocketing costs for the PPC, which got 27% of its electricity from coal last year, and has to buy the right to pollute the European carbon market. These polluting rights will weigh on its balance sheet by around $ 1 billion this year, as the cost of carbon permits has more than doubled to more than $ 70 per tonne since January.

The PPC this year announced an investment plan of 8.4 billion euros ($ 9.46 billion) to acquire or create 9.1 GW of renewable energy production capacity by 2026. This would double effectively PPC’s current production capacity and would allow it to shut down its remaining lignite production. plants. It raised part of the capital through a capital increase and by selling 49% of the country’s low voltage network, the Hellenic Distribution Network Operator.

One of the drivers of change has been the rising cost of carbon permits. Privatization was the other. The Independent Power Transmission Operator, Greece’s high-voltage transmission network, was detached from the state-controlled PPC during Greece’s economic crisis in 2011 and has since attracted investors.

The result is a $ 5 billion project, currently underway, connecting the largest Aegean islands to the grid via submarine cables by the end of the decade. This allows the PPC to stop producing electricity from diesel generators on the islands and reduce the carbon it releases into the atmosphere each year by nearly three million tonnes, or about a fifth of its emissions.

By 2030, renewables are expected to exceed 61% of Greece’s electricity mix, exceeding EU targets, according to its latest National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP).

Acheloos flows around the Sykia Dam construction site through a diversion tunnel [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Local resistance

Although the Greeks overwhelmingly support decarbonization, they often oppose energy projects in their backyards. Local opposition killed large wind farm projects on the islands of Serifos and Skyros, and it was a campaign coordinated by environmental groups that shut down the Acheloos dams.

Many villagers in Mesohora, who would be flooded if the dam’s reservoir were filled, are still against the project. The problem, says Panayotis Kotronis, who served as community president of Mesohora in the 1980s, is that irrigation priorities have marred green energy priorities.

“It started as a small hydroelectric dam that would reach a height of 80 meters [260 feet], “he said.” The lake would then not flood the village, only about ten houses. Then, as part of the Acheloos diversion project, it reached 135 meters [443 feet]. “

The higher water level caused new problems, Kotronis says. “Now the lake would reach just below the village square. But the upper half of the village will also slide into the lake. Studies say there will be a slippage.

The PPC, which built the dams, proposed to relocate Mesohora entirely, but a new site was never decided.

Residents also have environmental concerns, reflecting growing skepticism about dams.

“The flow of the river is already declining,” says Yorgos Sakkas, who was president of the community in 2002-10. “When it’s not raining, it’s just a stream. The water flows so slowly that it looks green from all the algae growing in it. We called it aspropotamos [the white river]. “

Argyro Karayiorgou, a resident of Mesohora since birth, rejects the broader national goal of producing clean energy. “Destroy one environment to save another? ” she asks. “If you destroy enough small environments, you destroy Earth.”

Other Mesohora residents see the bigger picture. Konstantinos Kotronis, the nephew of Panayotis, who was also president of the community, points out the current energy crisis.

“If a country is not self-sufficient in energy, it has an impact on its population. Energy is getting expensive … [Russian President Vladimir] Putin turns off the tap and gasoline prices are skyrocketing, ”he said.

Konstantinos Kotronis is in favor of the operation of the Mesohora dam [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

In January 2009, the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom interrupted the delivery of gas to Europe via Ukraine due to a disagreement over the arrears owed by the Ukrainian gas operator. Europe depends on Russia for more than a third of its gas, and Southeastern Europe is almost a Russian monopoly. The 2009 shutdown resulted in power outages, plant shutdowns and unheated homes in the region, and was a wake-up call for Europe’s energy security.

Autonomy was the goal when the PPC was founded. It relied on water and coal, both of which were abundant in Greece.

Western Greece has become the birthplace of the country’s renewable energy industry as it receives most of the country’s rainfall as the weather systems move from west to east.

This is where the country’s first dam was built, on the Arachthos river system, in 1950. In the 1960s, three dams were built on the lower Acheloos. The PPC got almost 14% of its electricity from hydropower last year, and most of it came from Arachthos and Acheloos.

The completion of the Mesohora and Sykia dams is bound to spark controversy again, but this time, local residents may not be an insurmountable obstacle. Indeed, a 2018 law encouraged Greeks to install solar panels on the roofs of the country’s 4.5 million households, thus increasing citizens’ participation in green energy.

A recent study by environmental think tank GreenTank found that some 466 megawatts of capacity have already been installed, representing four percent of the country’s installed renewable electricity capacity, and an additional 4,235 MW has been requested.

“I put solar panels on my roof [in Trikala], explains Konstantinos Kotronis. “When I choose energy that respects the environment at home, I cannot say that I am against elsewhere. “

A mural near the Mesohora dam calls on residents to a “struggle for land and for freedom” – many surrounding villages have opposed the construction of dams on the Acheloos [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Mary I. Bruner