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Solar Power in Greece: Stalled but not Out of Gas

Posted December 19, 2017 11:23 AM by BestInShow
Pathfinder Tags: Greece solar power

As we passed through residential suburbs on the way from the airport to downtown Athens, I noticed that many of the rooftops sported solar hot water tanks. Given the amount of sun – the Athens area has around 2700 hours of sun a year – the use of solar energy isn’t surprising. Many of the Greek Aegean islands are little more than rocky crags poking up from the sea, with few, if any, resources to provide electric power. Solar-powered electricity generation is especially appropriate for such locations.

So I was surprised to learn that, while Greece was a photoelectric pioneer, now the country lags behind other EU members. Renewables provide 20 percent of Greece’s electricity. An internet search reveals that the peninsula has plenty of solar equipment manufacturers and installers, yet the impetus to expand the installed base of photoelectric generation and distribution is flagging. And new lignite-burning electricity generation plants are coming online.

The Great Leap Backward

The reasons for this seeming leap backward? Some analysts point to tradition: Greece has long used lignite (a low-quality coal) to produce electricity. Greeks accept that the stuff pollutes the air and costs money but because lignite is mined within the country, using it means energy self-sufficiency and job creation. "Lignite helped develop Greece after World War II," says Lefteris Ioannidis, mayor of the municipality of Kozani, the epicenter of coal country. "It was cheap, accessible fuel that helped everybody here get jobs with good salaries. And this region, all of Greece, really, got addicted to it. It's been hard to change that."

An advocate for bringing wind power to Greece’s Aegean islands, Yiannis Tsipouridis, has made some modest progress. He has also heard some far-out excuses: wind turbines cause miscarriages, they chase away clouds. These remind me of some of the stuff my grandmother used to say like the moon landing never happened and the pictures came from a stage set.

European Union regulations are another contributing factor. The EU promotes the development of alternative and renewable energy sources, yet new regulations inadvertently discourage the extension of photoelectric generation, at least in Greece. Both Thessaloniki and Larisa, cities in northern and central Greece, respectively, have installed photoelectric systems on public building rooftops. When a given installation generates excess power, the excess can be credited to another public building that uses a lot of energy. Proposed changes to the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive, will require selling excess energy back to the grid, rather than “re-route” it. The Greek model, called virtual net metering, would kill the successful projects already operating in Thessaloniki and Larisa.

A Model for the Future?

Despite these setbacks, one Greek island is cutting the electric cord, metaphorically speaking. The Dodecanese island Tilos used to receive power via an underwater cable from Kos, an island about 25 miles north of Tilos that produces oil-based electricity. In September 2017, Tilos embarked on a pilot project to generate enough electricity for its small – fewer than 800 people during the summer – population by using renewable sources. The European Commission is providing most of the funding for this €15m experiment, which comprises one wind turbine and one small photovoltaic park. A residents’ association is also supporting the project. Tourism on Telos is growing modestly, driven in part by interest in the clean-energy experiment.

New large-scale generating plants are also opening with more on the way. Hellenic Petroleum, which, as its name suggests, primarily focuses on refining and trading petroleum products, had just added 8.6 megawatts of photovoltaic capacity. The company intends to continue its expansion into PV, taking advantage of Greece’s revised renewable energy law that provides incentives like virtual net metering.

Tradition can put up substantial barriers to change, even when proponents of doing things we’ve always done them acknowledge that the new way is better. If Greece can overcome unfavorable EU regulations, and encourage its citizens that wind turbines really do not chase away rain clouds, the country could get back to its pioneering adoption of renewable energy generation.

Image credits:

Livadia harbor on Tilos. Kostas Limitsios/flickr CC BY2.0

Solar power plant on the Island Tilos (Greece). Ulrich Scherf/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

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