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Climate Change Fears Push Greece Away from Weaning Off Coal

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(Photo by Eurokinissi)

KOZANI, Greece -- Greece wants to get away from coal because of climate change but can't get away from coal yet – because of climate change.

That's the conundrum facing the New Democracy government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis who said raging wildfires this summer were driven by climate change creating a record heat wave, baking forests into tinderboxes.

But at the same time, the government had to turn to coal plants again to keep electricity humming during the heat wave and loss of power from fires in some spots, creating a dilemma.

In a feature, POLITICO reported the problem – propelled by extreme weather - has delayed Greece from trying to both deal with climate change and get away from coal, the country not having nuclear power, nor widespread use of solar power or other sustainable sources despite a plethora of sun.

Earlier this year, record snowfall led to long power outages and saw the government urging Greeks to conserve power, an additional stress the site said raised doubts about the government's ambitious plan to cease using coal-fired plants.

Current plans call for shutting down all existing plants by 2023 and leaving only one new plant (currently under construction) operating until 2028 and the government is stepping up wind and solar power, which provide about 25 percent of power, a 95 percent goal by 2050.

But the rapid shutdown of coal-fired plants raises the risk of blackouts, especially in emergencies, some experts said, a dangerous prospect of climate change that skeptics deny continues bringing wild weather patterns.

Continuing with the phaseout will create capacity problems and "gaps in the system," Manousos Manousakis, President and CEO of ADMIE, Greece's transmission system operator, said at a conference in July.

Manousakis called for a careful transition "between the lignite era and the green era," saying it was better to be "safe than sorry,” perpetuating the tug 'o war between conservationists and coal backers, the industry providing jobs in Greece.

The coal plants though are contributing to the climate change that the government said it wants to stop but that it needs the plants that are creating the problem, apparently unsolvable for now. 

NO DIAMONDS IN COAL

Coal plants cause 45 percent of Greece's toxic emissions, which need to be reduced to meet climate change goals – but the facilities are needed to keep providing electricity.

“It is not an easy task but it is possible,” said Pantelis Capros, professor of energy economics at the National Technical University of Athens and appointed by the government to design a mechanism to manage energy network adequacy. “Climate change is happening much faster than we were expecting,” he told POLITICO.

Greece's lignite use dropped 49 percent in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, from 26.6 million tons in 2019 to 13.6 million tons in 2020, according to Eurostat, a trend across the EU.

Greece's power utility PPC wants to speed getting away from coal because of the costs of running the plants but the government also has vowed now to hold down and subsidize rising energy costs to appease voters.

“We should get rid of coal as fast as possible,” said Nikos Mantzaris, Senior Policy Analyst and partner at the Green Tank, an NGO.

He said that PPC can't afford rising carbon costs that "will eventually be passed on to the Greek consumers and the Greek industries, which are already non-competitive compared to their EU peers because of the high taxes and costs,” asking for more investments in renewables and energy storage units.

In August, the Energy Ministry decided to prolong the use of a lignite station in the Peloponnese until Sept. 10, citing “the urgent need to address emergency energy needs caused by extreme weather conditions, prolonged heatwaves and the devastating fires.”

Energy officials said no more coal plants should be shut down until alternative forms of energy - such as two gas-fired units with a capacity of 1,500 MW expected to be ready next year  - are available, the report also added.