Sean Sweeney, Ph.D.
Coordinator, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy,
Murphy Institute, City University of New York
Presentation, July 18, 2015, Democracy Rising conference, Athens, Greece
Third-Memorandum-or-Grexit-word document (full presentation)
It is understandable that this conference, Democracy Rising, should be deeply engaged in the intense political debates going on in Athens and all over the world about the decision by the Syriza government to sign the Third Memorandum and not walk down the Grexit road.
So the future of Greece’s energy system is not exactly the stuff of intense coffee-shop conversations going on right now. But energy will be at the heart of the struggles in Greece in the years ahead, Memorandum or Grexit. Energy poverty has grown with austerity and recession, and Syriza has taken measures to protect the poorest and most vulnerable from, for example, electricity disconnections.
But it is clear that the structure of Greece’s energy system also needs to change. The “Institutions”, through the Memorandum, have a clear sense of what restructuring energy means for them—full-on privatization. However, a left restructuring would seek to address two major challenges: firstly, Greece’s dependence on fossil fuel imports and, secondly, how to take advantage of its potential to generate large amounts of renewable energy. I will return to this later.
The Memorandum vs. Grexit debate – and left restructuring of energy
During yesterday’s discussion, and also the discussion on Thursday morning, speakers like Syriza MP Costas Lapavitsas criticized his party for not pursuing the Grexit option and for not preparing adequately for it. He and others have stated that leaving the European Monetary Union (EMU), while not painless, would be an altogether better option in terms of Greece’s medium- to long-term prospects. Others have argued that Greece’s political isolation (it is the only anti-austerity government in power in the EU); its lack of a productive base; its dysfunctional systems of administration, and so on, means that Syriza had no choice but to avoid bankruptcy, stay in power, and position itself for the longer struggle.
Along with others, I argue that a Grexit should indeed be prepared for so that the option becomes more real than perhaps it is at present. This is important because, whether desired or not, Grexit is still a real possibility, because signing the Memorandum is one thing; implementing it is another. The Memorandum makes it clear that the creditors will withhold disbursements if Greece does not comply with the Memorandum’s directives within the stipulated time frames. If Syriza fails to implement the directives of the memorandum, a “Grexile” becomes likely—in other words expulsion from the EMU. If this happens, social and economic restructuring will be back on the immediate political agenda.
Despite its many challenges (both known and unknown) Grexit is probably the best option from the perspective of building a new, better and cleaner, and democratically run energy system in Greece. However, while difficult to imagine at present, it is also possible that pressure will build within the EU and we will see a push back against Schäuble and Merkel – at this stage no one knows. With the IMF’s Debt Sustainability Analysis released on July 14th, it is clear that there is some kind of difference of opinion within the Troika.
The Thessaloniki program
The commitment to a left restructuring of the energy system is situated at the heart of Syriza’s goal to achieve an “ecological transformation of the economy” as expressed in the political resolution passed at the Thessaloniki conference in September 2014. When viewed through the lens of the events of the past few days and weeks, the Program bears the marks of an ‘age of innocence’ that has suddenly, very suddenly, come to an end. But the radical and transformative dimensions of Syriza’s program must be kept intact. The Memorandum is not Syriza’s program and not the will of Syriza or the majority of the Greek people, so it should not be allowed to totally eclipse the party’s goals and vision. In other words, render to Syriza the things that are Syriza’s, and render to Schäuble what is—today—Schäuble’s. But there can be no ecological transformation without an energy transformation – and that means less fossil fuels, more conservation and better management of energy use, and a qualitative shift towards renewable sources of power.
And if Grexit happens the Thessaloniki Program will provide a compass for Syriza and the left in the period ahead, and the development of an energy policy that is consistent with Syriza’s goals and vision will become a top priority.
Greece’s energy present
Energy costs are rising faster in Greece than in any other EU country, a situation that is leading to growing fuel poverty and serious hardship. According to data compiled by the EU’s Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER) and the Council of European Energy Regulators (CEER), an increase in energy costs of over 60 percent has been recorded in Greece during the last six years of the financial crisis (2008-2013). The Regulatory Authority for Energy in Greece reports that there were 257,002 disconnections because of nonpayment of bills in the first nine months of 2014 alone. Also in 2014, Greece had the second highest number per capita of electricity and gas disconnections in the EU, behind only Portugal.
But the problems are not just about the cost of electricity; the problems extend to the entire energy economy and reflect its present structure. Greece is today highly dependent on fossil fuels. Presently about 64% of the energy consumed is imported,considerably higher than the EU average of 46%. In 2013, the last year for which data is available, Greece also had to import more than 136 billion cubic feet of natural gas, mostly from Algeria, Turkey and Russia.  All of its oil and other petroleum products are imported, mostly to serve its fleet of motor vehicles. Greece consumed an average of 343,000 barrels of crude oil per day (2011 figures) of which almost half (46%) was used for transportation. The cost of these imports today amounts to around 5% of Greece’s GDP.
Roughly 93% of Greece’s energy consumption comes from fossil fuels while the corresponding average in the EU countries is 75%. For electricity, 27% of power generated comes from imported oil and gas. Domestic lignite (or ‘brown coal’) produces 70% of Greece’s electricity. Nevertheless, Greece still imported 255,000 tons of coal in 2012.
Lignite is a particularly dirty form of coal. A typical power station using lignite emits 37 per cent more carbon dioxide per unit of power output than a power station using black coal. Lignite use has made a major contribution to Greece’s disproportionately large contribution to global warming pollution (GHGs) and poor air quality.
Importantly, Greece has enormous renewable energy potential, but only a tiny fraction of it is presently being used. Renewable energy devoted to the generation of electrical power is less than 7% of the total supply, and this is despite the fact that Greece’s solar, wind and geothermal potential is considerable, in fact unusually so. Greece gets 1,500 kilowatt-hours per square meter of sunshine a year—a resource that is imported from 93 million miles away but costs nothing.
Tragically, there is no domestic solar photovoltaic (PV) industry in Greece to speak of, which reflects the failure of the EU’s neoliberal approach to energy. The withdrawal of the feed in tariffs (FITs) aimed at encouraging solar installations in Greece (and several other countries in the EU) has in recent years led to the bankruptcy of many small and medium sized solar companies – and these have become targets of larger foreign multinationals who can position themselves for the longer term. Non-Greek renewable energy companies, mostly German (but also Spanish and Chinese) opened offices in Greece during the Samaras period when renewable energy was identified as key to Greece’s recovery—and the government was looking for partners in order to help fulfill its potential. But for now solar energy deployment has more or less stopped.
What the Memorandum could mean for energy
Under the third Memorandum Syriza must raise €50 billion by selling state assets in order to pay back some of the national debt of €320 billion.
The Memorandum is particularly concerned about restructuring Greece’s energy sector through further privatizations. There have been a number of EU directives in the past 10-15 years that were designed to make electricity markets “competitive” by breaking up (“unbundling”) what were once fully public natural monopolies. This process was set in motion by the EU’s directive on the Internal Energy Market for Electricity and Gas passed down to member states in 1996.
Therefore one of the main targets for privatization is the Public Power Corporation (PPC). Forty-nine percent of the PPC has already been privatized as a result of the EU directives, but the Greek state is still in control of 51% of the PPC, which is Greece’s largest company by far. It owns almost all of the country’s installed power capacity (generated by lignite, oil, hydroelectric and natural gas power plants.) The PPC is a big target for the privatizers.
Under Samaras, privatization of the electricity system was being fast-tracked in accordance with the conditions laid down by the Troika’s previous memorandum. However, the day after the election of Syriza in late January this year, the privatization of the PPC was halted. Now the Third Memorandum has put the PPC’s privatization firmly back on the agenda, and Hellenic Petroleum and offshore oil or natural gas drilling parcels are also likely targets for a sell-off. The Memorandum also specifically demands “the privatisation of the electricity transmission network operator (ADMIE).”
Aside from leading to the sell off of state assets to repay a (small) portion of the debt, the Memorandum will perpetuate Greece’s dependency on imported fossil fuels, and any offshore drilling for oil and gas will be performed by multinationals largely for the benefit of multinationals, as has been the case with the UK. Samaras and the multinationals were developing plans for more fossil fuel exploitation in the eastern Mediterranean, south of Crete and in the Ionian Sea.
The Memorandum will also operate within the framework of existing EU energy directives that are hostile to the public sector. The Memorandum will therefore virtually ensure that renewable energy will continue to be confined to the margins, and if renewables do grow in future, albeit incrementally, the primary beneficiaries of Greek solar and wind potential will again be multinational companies that, through power purchase agreements (PPAs), will sell renewable power to Greece at a high price. Furthermore, EU policy (in keeping with World Bank and IMF preferences) strongly supports “Public Private Partnerships” as the basis for PPAs.
The Memorandum also means the continuation of the EU’s neoliberal approach to climate protection, which has failed in Greece and throughout Europe. Neoliberal approaches have led to a dramatic fall-off in EU investment levels in renewables from 2012 to the present. The EU’s Emissions Trading System is an embarrassment. The price of carbon is so low it might as well not exist. In Greece, the PPC under Samaras had committed to buying renewable energy from independent producers at five times its selling rate until 2034. Then, in November 2012, the Greek government zigzagged and introduced a retroactive tax on revenues earned by solar companies and the Samaras government also stopped issuing building permits for PV power plants in 2013. / Contrast this situation to the one in Denmark and Germany where renewable energy has grown impressively because it was either developed under public ownership (Denmark) or has been driven by remunicipalization efforts in dozens of cities (Germany).
Meanwhile, Greece is the highest emitter in the EU on a per capita basis, and the impact of climate change in the Mediterranean region will be particularly disruptive if scientific projections are at all accurate. Not only will Greece be unable to meet its own climate commitments, it will suffer disproportionately from the impacts of global warming. According to the Greek government’s national submission to the UNFCCC of some years ago, “The long-term predictions of climatic models for Mediterranean region are alarming,” and there is expected to be a remarkable decline in summer precipitation over the Mediterranean region as a whole. 
Energy and the Memorandum’s “Invisible Zones”
If Syriza succeeds in keeping Greece in the EMU, it has been said that it plans to pursue a range of positive actions in the areas not covered by the Memorandum—the phrase “invisible zones” has been used to describe this approach—while presumably complying with the Memorandum’s directives. The extent to which Syriza can ramp up public enthusiasm for actions in the invisible zones while at the same time imposing more austerity sounds like a complex political task to say the least. A lot will depend on how the zones are defined, the resources committed to them, and the willingness of the Greek social movements to self-organize in these spaces.
In terms of energy, the invisible zones seem particularly illusive because of the nature of a present system characterized by import dependency and the presently large role of the PPC, which, as we have noted, has been targeted for privatization under the Memorandum. In other sectors – such as farming and food distribution, provision of health services, the utilization of unused skills etc., actions in these zones could begin to make important changes and improvements.
But by extending the reach of the EU’s neoliberal energy policy further into the Greek economy, the Memorandum seems to leave little room for any kind of positive structural changes in the energy sector. However, this does not mean that nothing can be done. Solar cooperatives could be encouraged and could be registered as private companies, thus legally conforming to the Memorandum’s demand for increased “competition” in the energy sector. Energy conservation schemes could be encouraged in order to try to reduce demand for oil and gas in particular. Pedestrianization of inner city areas, incentives for car pooling and even a carbon tax on luxury vehicles are also worth exploring. But how significant these and other measures might be in terms of altering the structural features of Greece’s energy economy is difficult to predict.
Obstacles to Privatization
Operating inside the “invisible zones” could be very important on a number of levels, but it does not alter the fact that privatizations ordered under the Memorandum present two major problems for Syriza, assuming of course that the government intends to comply with its directives or at least be seen to making a serious effort to do so.
The first problem is that workers and communities will resist the privatizations. Under Samaras, the proposed water privatization in Thessaloniki was opposed by a broad coalition, one with the water workers union playing a leading role. The coalition used the tool of popular referendum. More than 98% said “No” to privatization, and 210,000 people voted. This was a non-binding referendum, but politicians concerned about re-election took note and the privatization was frozen—and then Syriza was elected which seemed to draw a successful close to the anti-privatization fight. Other privatizations under Samaras were also opposed. It seems very likely, then, that resistance to the privatization of key national assets under the Memorandum will also be considerable. Many union leaders are supportive of PASOK and KKE, and some might relish the thought of leading anti-privatization fights against a Syriza government.
The second problem is that privatizations will itself require buyers, and private corporations are probably not salivating at the prospect of making such a financial commitment with Syriza in power and the Greek people determined to not let privatizations occur or to mitigate their effects. This is particularly the case in the electrical power sector, which will need a lot of new capital investment in the years ahead. Furthermore, austerity in Greece has meant that consumers presently owe roughly €1.3 billion in unpaid bills, a figure that was rising by 4 million euro per day in mid-2014. This is likely to increase with the next wave of austerity measures under the new Memorandum. And then there is the issue the responsibility to cover the pension payments of retired workers that amount to €710 million per year.
The problem of attracting buyers could force Syriza to guarantee the “investment” of the purchasing company in order to remove risk. This is consistent with the thrust and intent of TTIP and other proposed trade deals. Also, Syriza could lower the asking price for the PPC and other national assets to Eastern European levels, when governments in that region sold public assets to foreign private companies at rock-bottom prices. But the more the price is lowered the more public opposition in Greece is likely to grow. When Samaras attempted to privatize the PPC there was some limited interest on the part of Chinese, Czech, and Russian corporations—but the Troika could only look on from a distance as Samaras talked about privatization with glowing enthusiasm, but ultimately he failed to deliver.
It is worth remembering that during the 4 years of the austerity period under Samaras, the Greek government raised just €3.5 billion from privatizations. Under Samaras and the Second Memorandum, the initial targets for proceeds from privatizations was €15 billion by end-2012 and €50 billion by end-2015. However, the Samaras government revised its privatization objectives significantly downward after completing only around €100 million in privatizations in 2012. Samaras said the best his government could do was to get to a total of €10.3 billion by the end of 2016.
The Third Memorandum asks Syriza to raise €50 billion from sale of public assets. This seems like an impossible target, as is anything even close to that amount. Privatizations can also be long and drawn out affairs. The process of privatization of the PPC was initiated in the enactment law of 1999. The PPC became a public limited company in January 2001. A 2006 law gave renewable energy companies special access to distribution and transmission systems. And this slow pace of change mostly occurred under governments that were committed to privatizations, and Syriza is unlikely to be as accommodating.
A Grexit (or Grexile) will immediately lead to a devalued currency, which in turn would mean that Greece’s already large payments to import oil (more than €10 billion annually or 5% of GDP) and gas would be expected to grow in real terms – raising prices and also exacerbating fuel poverty. Food imports amount to 12% of GDP, but it is easier to something about Greece’s food bill than it is to reduce its oil and gas payments. This is a major challenge, but one that makes restructuring the energy system even more urgent.
However, instead of the sell-off of national assets under the Memorandum, Grexit would allow Greece to maintain some considerable control over its existing energy system. Retaining this control is critically important; it provides a platform to restructure the energy system in accordance with both Syriza’s program and Greece’s long-term national interests.
Given the structural problems defined above – fossil fuel dependency and a weak renewable’s sector – retaining control is not enough. Control must become a platform for a range of energy-related measures and actions that could be pursued immediately as a means of beginning to address these problems. These actions become more feasible if they are accompanied by the nationalization of the banks (which is a programmatic commitment of Syriza’s) and the redirection of finance to rebuild and reorganize the economy.
The Samaras government had talked about engaging multinationals to develop Greece’s domestic offshore oil and gas potential, which is thought to be considerable. However, domestic oil and gas production will be hugely controversial given its environmental effects and potential impacts on tourism in particular. But neither can Greece ignore its structural trade deficit of which a considerable portion is due to the fact that it imports all of its oil and gas – as well as motor vehicles which burn imported petroleum. Either way, it will take many years before Greece could become a producer of its own oil and gas to offset expensive imports.
Specific measures that could be taken:
In the event of a Grexit or Grexile, Syriza will need to act quickly and decisively on energy. Below are a few possible measures that could be taken (more details are presented in an earlier TUED working paper Energy Democracy in Greece: Syriza’s Program and the Transition to Renewable Power)
- The Greek parliament should repeal the EU’s privatization and liberalization directives
Grexit would allow Greece to repeal the privatization and liberalization laws imposed by the EU under the Internal Energy Market for Electricity and Gas. There would be no further need to comply with those laws, so it makes sense to repeal them—and thus reopen legal space for public and community control of energy generation, transmission, distribution and options.
- Initiate an inclusive process around a “National Energy Conservation and Transition Plan”
Greece’s potential for solar and wind power generation is well established, but scaling up renewable power in a way that can begin to appreciably reduce the use of fossil fuels over a 30 year period will require a broad societal effort and a clear public consensus for energy transition. The same is true of energy conservation, particularly in the transport sector.
The public sector in partnership with community-based organizations must drive the development of renewable energy. Renewable energy technologies (RETs) opens the door to municipal control over electrical power distribution and also distributed energy generation. Greece’s next energy system can therefore be a pillar of popular power.
Aware of these possibilities, Syriza could initiate a broad-based and inclusive process for developing and implementing a national energy conservation and transition plan. Such a process would be able to draw on the knowledge and experience of social movements, unions, the scientific and R&D communities, and also progressive renewable energy entrepreneurs whose start-up companies were destroyed with the ending of the Feed in Tariff. In the spirit of solidarity, it could also draw on the experience of practitioner in the field of public and community-owned renewable power in countries like Denmark and Germany.
Such a plan could involve developing an inventory of public buildings and spaces in order to assess their capacity for on-site power generation. Public buildings – schools, hospitals, etc. – could be assessed in order to see if they are suited for solar PV, and a plan developed to install PV systems over the course of the next decade or two.
- Begin to Reorganize and Reorient the Public Power Corporation
The PPC must remain public, but it needs to be reoriented and reorganized. The transparent and accountable PPC could play a major role in developing and implementing a new energy system in Greece. The workers in the PPC can be integrated into the new ownership and oversight structures and can be given a large degree of responsibility for operating and maintaining the systems, something they do every day. Sections of middle management can also be constructively engaged. Public servants in the Ministry of Environment Energy and Climate Change (MEEC) and, under MEEC, the Center for RE and Saving (CRES) can also be engaged. There are presently 22 universities in Greece that, along with public agencies, generate 70% of R&D – that’s the highest level of publicly funded R&D in the EU.
- Encourage Energy Cooperatives and Decentralized Power Generation
A rapid development of renewable sources of power can be greatly assisted by community-owned and controlled decentralized power. Small producers and energy cooperatives will feature prominently in this model—although the precise balance between these options can not be determined in advance and will need to be shaped politically. Popular participation is critically important. In Denmark the key to the success and acceptance of wind power, for example, has been community ownership. Neoliberal legal reforms, which then increased large-scale outside ownership, saw renewable energy deployment grind to a halt.
- A Plan for Coal
Domestic lignite will be part of Greece’s energy base for some time to come, because the shift towards renewable energy will take many years. The rapid deployment of renewable energy will require investments in infrastructure—which must be done under public control. An IEA study of the Greek Energy Policy pointed out insufficient grid capacity as a significant barrier to faster uptake of renewable energy sources during that time.
However, the temptation to developed new lignite-fired power stations should be resisted. Lignite reserves in Greece are plentiful and could last many decades, but the existing lignite-powered generation facilities presently operational in Greece will not last forever and the fleet of lignite-fired facilities will eventually become dilapidated and will have to be decommissioned. The trajectories for the gradual winding down of lignite use will, however, depend on how fast renewable energy can be scaled up in Greece, how much conservation can be encouraged, and how technical and financial challenges are met and obstacles negotiated.
- Financing the energy transition
Greece’s nationalized banks can lend capital to municipal and other public authorities at socially fair and reasonable rates of return. And even if these authorities need to borrow from commercial banks, the cost of capital is cheaper for these authorities than it is for private businesses. Capital could also be sourced by other means. Firstly, in 2012, the PPC made a pre-tax profit of €276 million Euros. A ‘reclaimed’ PPC would provide the option of redirecting capital to renewables. Another option is for PPC to issue bonds against its future revenues.
- Developing supply chains and creating jobs
The prospects of developing manufacturing PV panels or wind turbines in Greece are presently not that good. The collapse in solar PV panel prices is forcing a consolidation of the industry, with the loss of tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs in Europe, North America, and China. Jobs can, however, be created in the production of basic components and in the construction, installation and maintenance of renewable energy projects. The production of solar modules amounts to about 25% of the cost of solar, and labor costs are a small portion of that 25% (perhaps 10%). Invertors add a further 10% of the cost of solar. But solar PV also needs mounting structures such as extruded aluminum rails (the modules are connected by these rails) that can be produced by existing metal fabricators in Greece. “Follow the sun” single-axis and double-axis tracking systems are also needed. Large-scale deployment will also stimulate demand for cables and connectors and other electrical components. Array planners are also needed.
Greece should plan for a “Grexit” while at the same time building resistance within the “invisible zones” of the Third Memorandum. It should also plan for an energy transition that is transformative and consistent with the political program adopted by Syriza in Thessaloniki in September 2013. Energy transition will be an important component of a broad and deep reorganization of the political economy. The Memorandum cannot eclipse Syriza’s vision of a new economy and a new society.
Sean Sweeney, Director, International Program on Labor, Climate and Environment, Murphy Institute, City University of New York
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On June 26, 2013, the government said that about 30 percent of PPC’s resources would be spun off to create a rival company, while the company-owned transmission operator, Admie, would also be sold. The government’s proposals will mean that PPC will transfer to its privately-run spin-off about 1,400 MW of coal capacity and 500 MW each of water and gas-fired unitshttp://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite2_1_15/05/2013_498890 http://www.bloomberg.com/news/print/2013-05-15/greece-details-plans-for-public-power-privatization-1-.html
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