A number of politicians in northwestern Greece have grown weary of the pollution and health risks resulting from local coal mining. They are looking into an energy overhaul based on renewables.
Driving through the northern Greek towns of Kozani, Ptolemaida, Amyntaio and Florina reveals a side of Greece that most tourists do not get to experience. There is no beach or sea in sight - instead, mines, coal piles and coal-burning power plants dot the landscape. The plants are run by the Public Power Corporation of Greece (DEI), which is mostly publicly owned.
Environmental problems plague the region. About 80 percent of its power plants were built decades ago. They produce large amounts of pollution that breach EU environmental protection standards.
This has led local governments to demand penalty payments from DEI. Greenpeace has also blamed the corporation for an increased death rate in the region. In 2007, a study by the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki found cancer to be the cause of about one-third of all deaths in Ptolemaida.
According to Amyntaio Mayor Ioakim Iossifidis, DEI has also neglected its duty to restore vegetation in areas that have been mined.
"The state, but especially DEI, have not played by the rules," he said. "The re-naturalization of mined surfaces is obligatory under the law."
Iossifidis added in spite of this, DEI continues to receive mining permits. He said cleaning up of the area damaged by mining would cost more than 5.75 billion euros ($7 billion), a bill noone can afford.
However, if funding did come through, Iossifidis would like to see the region undergo a clean-up similar to one that has taken place in Germany's Lusatia region since the mid-1990s.
There, billions of dollars have gone into recultivation, removing toxic substances and converting open-pit mines into artificial lakes in an area spanning 100,000 hectares. The money has also been put to infrastructure projects, vocational training and developing local tourism. The efforts have brought various new businesses to the region.
Aside from pollution, another consequence of coal-burning is the inevitable exhaustion of energy resources. Northern Greece is expected to run out of brown coal reserves in about 40 years.
Meanwhile, the European Commission's 2010 energy strategy calls for EU member countries to draw 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. That has prompted local politicians in Greece's mining region to consider a new approach to power production.
Solar power prospects
"We want to achieve a smooth transition to renewable energy usage," said Ptolemaida Mayor Paraskevi Vryzitou.
She added that the region should continue to produce the same amount of energy, but "this energy should come from sources that are neither exhaustible nor damaging to the environment."
The basic infrastructure for such an undertaking is already in place, with a power grid that does not need to be built from scratch.
The region is also the main site of a solar energy project called Helios initiated by Athens in February of this year. Greece plans to greatly develop its photovoltaic systems and even export solar power to other EU countries. It hopes for foreign investment to contribute.
One investor could be the western German town of Detmold. The 70,000-strong community has set itself apart with successful investments in renewable energy production. Detmold has formed a holding company with other German municipalities as well as electric utilities giant RWE. The town runs wind farms in the North Sea and Scotland.
A recent conference in Thessaloniki gave local Greek mayors the chance to discuss possible investments with representatives from Detmold. But Stefan Freitag of the Detmold public utilities company thinks a few important points need to be addressed first.
"We have the currency exchange risk, which could become a significant problem if the situation worsened and Greece left the eurozone," he said.
Freitag added he would like to see the grid owner provide investors with a solid business plan for the next 20 years.
Changes on this scale need to be supported by local residents. That could be difficult. With about 7,000 full-time employees and 3,500 seasonal workers, DEI is the main employer in its region. Despite recent cuts, monthly wages of 2,500 euros ($3,040) for full-timers is still well above the national average. Solar parks and wind farms would require a smaller workforce, and that has DEI employees on the defensive.
DEI's trade union is protesting efforts to switch to renewables. Union chairman Jorgos Adamidis sees the strategy as virtually criminalizing the use of brown coal.
"We need conventional energy sources for times when there's no sunshine and no wind," he added.
Adamidis said that brown coal should remain the main source of energy in Greece.
Author: Pagnaiotis Kouparanis / ew
Editor: Shant Shahrigian