NEW YORK — A week after a report indicated Greece's hopes to wean off coal to generate energy could be set back by climate change, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he believes the country could shut down the plants which use the fossil fuel by 2025, three years earlier than planned.
In an interview with Bloomberg TV, he also said that his New Democracy government would aid consumers facing big jumps in electric bills and wants the European Union to create a mechanism to take monies from added sales of carbon permits – which give permission to keep generating toxic gases to bring in revenues – to cut energy costs.
“We have made a commitment to support electricity users in Greece. We are doing it by providing state funding but also encouraging electricity producers to absorb part of the cost increase,” he explained, adding that Greeks “will not see significant increases” in electricity bills – but only in the next three to six months.
In September 2019 at the United Nations Climate Action Summit he first said he wanted Greece to stop using coal in the 21st Century to generate electricity and more toward more renewable sources, although Greece doesn't make widespread use of solar despite an abundance of annual sunny days.
“The Greek economy has been so reliant on coal and coal has been so firmly positioned in the politics of the country, similar to the situation in Poland, that it was one of those things that you hoped for but didn’t seem possible,” Mahi Sideridou, managing director of the Europe Beyond Coal coalition told the site Energy Monitor then.
Charles Moore, the European program lead for Ember, a think tank, added at the time that, “Greece’s coal phase-out is ambitious and it is also extremely important because it involves lignite.”
He said that “Lignite is dirtier but it is also generally more difficult to move away from because it is cheaper and supports lots of local jobs,” especially in the area of Macedonia which is a stronghold for Mitsotakis' ruling party.
The importance of lignite in Greece’s power mix has been declining for years, although in 2018 it still provided about one-third of electricity. That figure decreased to roughly 10% in the first ten months of 2020, the site said.
But the move isn't just environmental but economic. Greece’s state-controlled Public Power Corporation, which operates the country’s lignite power plants, has been losing money on these facilities for years.
“Greece’s lignite is the poorest in the EU by far, and so the most vulnerable to any changes with a financial impact,” Nikos Mantzaris, Senior Policy Analyst and partner at The Green Tank, an environmental think tank told the site.
BLACK AND GREEN
“It has the lowest thermal content and so you need to burn more, which means there is more carbon dioxide, and with carbon dioxide prices rising it was the end of the game.”
Earlier in September, the site POLITICO said Greece's government was facing the problem of trying to get off coal as 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.
The site said that 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 either.
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 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.
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 still uses coal to produce electricity, the single biggest contributor to climate change, and less than 25 percent of power comes from renewable sources, such as wind turbines.