Sean Sweeney of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy attended the Democracy Rising conference in Athens, and looks at the implications for Greece’s energy system. This is a summary of his presentation.
Energy will be at the heart of the struggles in Greece in the years ahead, whether the Memorandum signed with the Troika endures, or the country is pushed to 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.
Grexit should 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 monetary union. 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.
The energy situation in Greece now
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.
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%.
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.
Tragically, there is no domestic solar photovoltaic 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 aimed at encouraging solar installations in Greece 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.
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.
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. The PPC is a big target for the privatizers.
Breathing space in the Invisible Zones
“Invisible Zones” are areas not covered by the Memorandum, and provide some (very challenging) scope for the Greek government to act.
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.
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.
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