ATHENS – Wghen wildfires swept across Greece during a brutal heatwave in 2021 – both phenomena are back this summer – Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that climate change, largely fueled by fossil fuels was a key reason.
Now he’s been forced to return using heavily-polluting brown coal lignite and crank up coal-fired plants set to close, and keep them operating for years, because of fears there won’t be enough Russian supplies this winter.
The European Union exempted Russian oil and gas, which accounts for as much as 40 percent of the bloc’s – and Greece’s – supply from sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine, but President Vladimir Putin has been slowing down the flow and there are worries he may turn off the tap.
The EU scrambled to create a diluted plan with a 15 percent reduction in natural gas use but gave many countries so many outs it rendered it unlikely to be enough of a bulwark against the loss of Russian supplies.
In a feature, CNN noted the irony of Greece, during blistering heat and more fires, using the very fuel that creates the conditions for them to perpetuate, and officials suggesting coal is here to stay for a long time.
In 2021, the New Democracy government said it was confident it could close all existing coal-burning plants by 2023 but would build one more in Western Macedonia, the region with the biggest supply.
The new plant, Ptolemaida 5, would in 2025 then run on natural gas, another polluting fossil fuel, but one that is generally less carbon-intensive than the lignite, or brown coal, found in this part of Greece, said CNN, the plan gone awry.
The deadline to end the use of coal in all existing plants has been delayed from 2023 to 2025, and Mitsotakis recently suggested the new Ptolemaida plant will realistically need to burn coal until at least 2028, the report said.
SOME COLD CHOICES
Greece also plans to increase coal mining input by 50 percent over the loss of natural gas and warned households and businesses to expect power outages or periodic blackouts this winter or sooner.
The Greek government is trying to convince people that its return to coal is only temporary but going back to coal mining is luring workers back to an industry many had left, seeing the end coming.
The Public Power Corporation has offered steady work to thousands of people in Western Macedonia where the unemployment rate is nearly 20 percent, including Dimitris Mitsaris, who left the mines to take up wine making.
But he’s now wondering if he made the right choice, he told CNN as coal is coming back because of the energy crisis. “I’m afraid about the future,” he said. “I have two young daughters to bring up,” he added.
Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Greece only relied on coal for around 9 percent of its energy supply, down from 25 percent in 2016 and was the first country in the coal-dependent Balkans to begin phasing it out.
In Western Macedonia – which provides 80 percent of Greece’s coal — the PPC took over dozens of villages to mine the coal underneath them and moved entire communities to the edge.
The Greek government has devised a 7.5 billion euro ($7.69 billion) plan to move toward sustainable and green energy in a country with bountiful sun and wind, neither fully tapped for their potential, and years to develop.
Western Macedonia is a focus in the plan and should receive plenty of the money, partly to become a center for renewables in the country but the people who live there, the report said, are skeptical it can happen soon.
Nikos Koltsidas and Stathis Paschalidis are trying to create sustainable solutions for those who have lost their jobs in the green transition with a Proud Farm initiative.
“To those thinking about going back to working in coal, they should look at all the regions that are thriving without it,” said Paschalidis. “There’s no need to stay stuck in these outdated models of the PPC,” he said.