Why Greece Has Been Slow To Embrace Clean Energy : Parallels With its famed sunshine and sea winds, Greece should be a clean energy hub. But it's been slow to abandon coal and embrace renewable energy. That's changing on one small island.
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Why Greece Has Been Slow To Embrace Clean Energy

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Why Greece Has Been Slow To Embrace Clean Energy

Why Greece Has Been Slow To Embrace Clean Energy

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This summer, we've been reporting on the ways people around the world are contributing to and dealing with climate change. Greece has been slow to adopt clean energy, as Joanna Kakissis explains.


JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The sound that you're hearing is the wind whipping across the Aegean Sea. The winds here are legendary. There are the seasonal winds, which the ancient Greeks called the etesiai. And then there are the main winds, which Homer described in the "Odyssey".


KEVIN BEESLEY, BYLINE: Together the East Wind and the South Wind dashed. And the fierce-blowing West Wind and the North Wind, borne in the bright heaven, rolling before him, a mighty wave. Then were the knees of Odysseus loosened, and his heart melted. And deeply moved, he spoke to his own mighty spirit - ah me, wretched that I am. What is to befall me at the last?

KAKISSIS: Odysseus may have seen the winds as a curse. But on the island of Tilos they're a blessing. In a little over a month, Tilos, population 400, will become the first island in the Mediterranean powered solely by wind and sun.


KAKISSIS: I recorded the wind on a ferry ride to this tiny island off the coast of Turkey.


KAKISSIS: The port looks like it's right out of a postcard - whitewashed houses, bright fuchsia flowers, sage everywhere.


KAKISSIS: Mayor Maria Kamma is waiting at a seaside cafe. Over beers and roasted goat, she explains that much of the island is already a protected nature reserve.

MARIA KAMMA: (Through interpreter). An increasing number of tourists come here every year for this reason. So we wanted to evolve from simply a green island into a clean energy island. We wanted to do something substantive.


KAKISSIS: She reached out to engineers at the Technological Educational Institute of Piraeus, who designed a small solar park, wind turbine and a battery storage system. Stathis Kontos moved here to work on the project, financed by the European Union and a Greek renewable energy company.

STATHIS KONTOS: Greece can do it. We can do difficult things. We are only 400 people here. And if 400 people in a small island can do that, I think everybody in Greece can do that.

KAKISSIS: Back in Athens, not everyone is optimistic.

IOANNIS TSIPOURIDIS: Tilos is a good example to acquaint people with the use of renewables. But it's a small island, small needs. It will just cover the local needs.

KAKISSIS: That's Ioannis Tsipouridis, a wind energy advocate and the former head of renewables for Greece's electricity company, the Public Power Corporation.

TSIPOURIDIS: The Aegean should be a clean energy production unit.

KAKISSIS: Should be - but isn't yet. The first wind park in Europe did go up in Greece in 1982. But Greece didn't invest much in the industry, and renewables now supply only 20 percent of the country's electricity, less than in much less sunny Germany. Tsipouridis is frustrated by the continued reliance on lignite coal.

TSIPOURIDIS: We're one of the few countries that's constructing new lignite stations - totally wrong.

KAKISSIS: Wrong because he believes Greece could be making a lot of money exporting clean energy.

TSIPOURIDIS: So you have to persuade the political system that this is treasure to utilize. You can't do that because we have lignite, which they consider is also God's gift.


KAKISSIS: Giorgos Adamidis is one of those people in the political system who considers lignite God's gift. He runs the union representing workers at the Public Power Corporation. The union applauded when President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement.

GIORGOS ADAMIDIS: (Through interpreter) I believe there is some human involvement in climate change, but there's no way it's so high that it will destroy the planet. I can't imagine that, and scientists haven't proved it in my opinion.

KAKISSIS: Adamidis believes that the financial interests of renewable energy companies are pushing climate change fears.

ADAMIDIS: (Through interpreter) Lignite is our own fuel. We have to utilize it, defend it and not shut down the plants.

KAKISSIS: Lignite has created thousands of jobs at mines and power plants in northern Greece. Lefteris Ioannidis is the mayor of the city of Kozani, in a region that you would call the Greek West Virginia.

LEFTERIS IOANNIDIS: (Through interpreter) Lignite helped develop Greece after World War II. It was cheap, accessible fuel that helped everybody get jobs with good salaries. And this region, all of Greece really, got addicted to it. It's been hard to change that.

KAKISSIS: I meet Ioannidis in the village of Agios Dimitrios, next to one of the largest and most polluting coal-fired plants in Europe. Workers in protective suits shovel coal onto a conveyor belt. Fumes pour out of smokestacks. The air is hot and heavy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: At a cafe run by a retired coal miner, Ioannidis explains that many here do believe that burning lignite has contributed to climate change. But they need jobs. The unemployment rate here is 30 percent.

IOANNIDIS: (Through interpreter) If people here see that there's a clear plan to retrain them to work in renewable energy, they'll buy into it. They know Greece's future is in renewable energy. We've already approached the government about training people to build wind turbines and solar panels here.

KAKISSIS: About a third of Greece's energy production now comes from lignite coal, which is set to run out in about 30 years. Greece is increasingly importing diesel, transporting it to the Aegean Islands.

TSIPOURIDIS: And really, I hate myself when I say that. But I have to say - do you think that if Greece was inhabited by Germans, let's say - God forbid - that the Aegean would have diesel stations?

KAKISSIS: That's Ioannis Tsipouridis, the wind power advocate we met earlier. He says many islanders are wary of wind parks - and not just for the usual reasons, like birds dying or turbines spoiling views. He's heard some weird excuses.

TSIPOURIDIS: Like pregnant women were losing their babies, the clouds were being chased away...

KAKISSIS: And this one from a Greek farmer.

TSIPOURIDIS: My goats have turned gay. He said it.

KAKISSIS: Yes, that's right. That farmer claimed wind turbines can change the sexual orientation of goats.


KAKISSIS: Tiny Tilos and its goats are OK with that. If this remote island outpost is forward-thinking, much of the credit goes to a pioneering mayor named Tasos Aliferis. He turned the sage-covered hills into a nature reserve. He officiated at the first gay wedding in Greece, here, in 2008. And as he lay dying of cancer in 2012, he launched this clean energy plan. And his son teamed up with current Mayor Maria Kamma to realize it.


UNIDENTIFIED ARTIST: (Singing in foreign language).

KAKISSIS: Mayor Kamma says she'd like to do even more.

KAMMA: (Through interpreter) We'd like to bring in electric cars with charging stations. We'd like our farms to grow organic produce and save water.

KAKISSIS: And she's hoping the rest of her sunny and windy country is watching.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Tilos island in Greece.

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