NAXOS, Greece – On the windswept western tip of one of Greece’s largest islands, an unassuming stone building high above the Aegean Sea has become an unlikely outpost in that country’s fight against climate change.
Camouflaged inside is a new power station connected to a 180-mile submarine power cable that connects Naxos to a chain of other airy vacation playgrounds, allowing the islands to ditch their oil-fired generators for the renewable energy from the abundant wind and sun of Greece.
Neighboring islands have become zero carbon labs for companies like Volkswagen to deploy electric cars and cable communities for clean energy. Changes are also underway on the mainland, where the dirty lignite coal mines that have supplied Greece for decades are being accelerated shutdown.
The push for a clean energy transition would seem like a Herculean task for Greece, a country of around 10 million people that recently emerged from a devastating decade-long debt crisis and still relies heavily on fossil fuels for its energy.
But as the European Union seeks to be a world leader in the race to stop climate change, Greece is betting that turning to a carbon-free future can reshape its economic destiny.
“The growth of the economy is inextricably linked to making us as energy independent as possible,” said Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a conservative who took office in 2019 and is committed to rebuilding the country. Greece, partly on the basis of an environmental program.
“Greece can be a paradigm of how energy transition and climate action can create jobs and sustainable growth,” he said in an interview.
Whether Greece succeeds matters. As wealthier European countries like Norway and Denmark make progress in reconfiguring their economies to be more climate-friendly, Greece offers a test case of whether – and how effectively – states Europe’s poorest can shift away from fossil fuels while offering buffers to those threatened by currency.
The transformation is necessary and strategic. Greece’s economy is expected to rebound 6.1% this year after contracting nearly 10% during the pandemic and a quarter during the debt crisis. But the government has yet to attract billions of clean energy investments to help tackle its mountain of persistent debt and 14% unemployment, and build a stronger foundation for future growth.
Greece is receiving a powerful financial boost to support these efforts: € 30 billion (nearly $ 35 billion) – the equivalent of one-fifth of the Greek economy – from an EU stimulus fund. European Union designed to revive the coronavirus pandemic.
The change has already raised tensions. Villages are trying to block wind turbines, arguing that they will turn away tourists, Greece’s main source of income. Citizens are agitating against the loss of jobs in the mining sector. And a surge in the price of natural gas, a fuel used to switch from oil to renewables, is hitting poorer households, forcing the government to subsidize costs.
Yet the murderous toll of climate change creates an emergency. This summer, Greece was ravaged by the worst wildfires in years, with temperatures reaching 46 degrees Celsius, or 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Houses have been razed and thousands of people have been displaced. Almost no corner of Europe has been untouched by extreme weather conditions, be it fires, floods or heat.
The submarine cable plugged into Naxos is at the heart of Greece’s strategy to attract critical investments in renewable energy. The idea is to build Greece’s incomplete infrastructure to circulate more solar and wind power through the national grid. Greece aims to produce 60% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030 and to be climate neutral by 2050.
BlackRock, Quantum Energy Partners and Fortress Investment Group said they see a potential windfall in investing in green development here. American, Chinese and European companies are offering wind and solar farms, hydroelectric facilities, and hydrogen and battery projects to store renewable energy.
The change has been a long time coming. As turbines and solar panels are scattered across the country, Greece has clung to lignite oil and coal for decades as interests in the Greek oil industry thwarted change. The Greek islands used oil-fired electricity generators that cost billions of dollars and emit more than 2.8 million tonnes of carbon per year. Investors were frightened by an impenetrable bureaucracy and waited up to 10 years to obtain licenses to build wind or solar farms – something the government is committed to streamlining.
About half of Greece’s energy was still powered by petroleum products in 2017. But renewables and imported natural gas now occupy a larger share.
The submarine cable will connect Greece’s most popular tourist islands, including Mykonos and Santorini, connecting them to the mainland electricity grid for the first time and more than quadruple their energy capacity, said Nikos Margoutas, project manager for the state utility operator overseeing the shift. Another cable described as the longest in the world will eventually link the mainland and Crete, Greece’s largest island and the one with the most promise for solar and wind power.
On a recent afternoon, the rousing sound of high voltage electricity crackled over a howling wind outside the Naxos substation, which was hidden inside the stone house. specially designed not to be an eyesore to tourists.
“We are laying the groundwork for Greece’s green future,” said Margoutas, sweeping his arm out into the azure expanse of the Aegean Sea.
Cable has already improved life on the island in a notable way. For years, blackouts were rife, cutting off the lighting of the iconic Temple of Apollo, forcing restaurants to throw out refrigerated octopuses and preventing vacationers from recharging their cell phones.
Since the arrival of the cable, there have been no breakdowns.
“It was romantic, you could see the stars,” recalls Dimitris Lianos, the mayor of Naxos. “But it was a big deal for businesses and visitors.”
A parallel program aims to turn around 20 small islands into zero-emission proving grounds for Greek government partner companies.
Volkswagen is replacing cars and public transport on Astypalaia Island with electric vehicles powered by solar energy sources that it is installing. In Halki, an island of just 300 inhabitants, French energy giant Vinci is building photovoltaic fields to power public lighting, homes and businesses at low cost or for free.
Yet despite all the benefits of converting to green energy, a tangle of problems remains.
Environmental groups say the government cleans with one hand while polluting with the other.
They cite huge natural gas exploration projects in the Ionian Sea near Crete, Corfu and other islands, which Mitsotakis has championed as necessary to secure a critical resource for the clean energy transition. New licenses were granted to Exxon Mobil, Total and Hellenic Petroleum during the financial crisis as Greece faced huge debts. Some potential drilling sites near Turkey have sparked geopolitical tensions.
Others are unhappy with the idea of gigantic wind turbines disfiguring the landscape that attracts tourism – the only activity Greece does well. Seven people were reportedly injured last month on the island of Tinos – known in Greek mythology to shelter the wind god because of its breezes – after clashes between police and protesters trying to stop a truck from carrying a giant wind turbine blade on top of a mountain.
The backlash on the islands has become so stormy that authorities are considering installing floating turbines and solar platforms in the sea.
“The government cannot just come in with pride and say, ‘We have investors and we are going,'” said Nikos Charalambides, the head of Greenpeace Greece, which supports movements towards renewable energy but says citizens do not are not being consulted adequately.
On the continent, more than 8,000 mining jobs are threatened by Mitsotakis’ plan to shut down all lignite coal-fired power plants except one in Greece by 2023. In response, the government has pledged to transform the hardest hit areas, including West Macedonia and Megalopolis, a coal town in the Peloponnese, as sites of the emergence of new types of work.
The plans are ambitious, calling for carbon neutral agriculture, photovoltaic fields, sustainable tourism and business start-up campuses that would theoretically modernize Greece – and create up to 200,000 new energy jobs and the environment.
Critics are skeptical. At the same time, the Greeks understand that the country has no choice but to move forward, said Greenpeace’s Charalambides.
“It is an opportunity for the economy and for society to create new jobs and a new perspective,” he said.
“Greece has been so exhausted by the financial crisis and so ineffective as a state,” he added. “If the green energy transition works here, there is nowhere in Europe where it cannot work.
Niki Kitsantoniscontributed reports.