Acheloos, Greece – In some of the remotest gorges of western Greece, at the ends of roads that wind like small intestines, sit the country’s biggest white elephant projects.
The Mesohora dam, completed 20 years ago, towers across a ravine cut by the Acheloos river, but its reservoir is empty.
Downstream lies the unfinished Sykia dam.
When work crews departed in 2009, its clay core stood to a fraction of the 150-metre (492 feet) height it is supposed to reach, the gravel buttresses even lower.
The two dams were supposed to produce at least 890 gigawatt hours per year (GWh), enough to power tens of thousands of homes, but the Acheloos continues to flow around them through diversion tunnels.
This is because Mesohora and Sykia, along with two other hydroelectric dams on which construction had not started, were part of a system with a dual purpose. They were designed to sustain enormous reservoirs – almost three-quarters of a billion tonnes between them – in order to divert 600 million tonnes of water each year to the Thessaly plain, Greece’s biggest farming region. A 17km (10.5 miles) tunnel bored under the Pindos mountains for the purpose, but never lined with concrete, is now in danger of collapsing.
Unsustainable farming practices have led Thessaly to pump its underground aquifer almost dry, and desertification now threatens this region of one million people. Since 2000, the Council of State, Greece’s top administrative court, has repeatedly ruled that cultural and environmental impacts of the Acheloos diversion have not been properly assessed, bringing works to a halt. That left more than a billion dollars of taxpayer money literally sunk in the ground.
Now amid rising temperatures linked to climate change and the obligation to meet clean energy goals, the conservative New Democracy government tells Al Jazeera it is reviving the dam projects as part of a plan to meet both Greece’s decarbonisation targets and its irrigation needs.
“The works of the upper Acheloos will be completed in the next five to six years, based on new and improved studies,” the environment ministry told Al Jazeera in written answers.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently said the government will launch public-private project funding for more than a billion dollars’ worth of irrigation infrastructure works, including dams, lakes and pipe networks.
“The government plans to construct 21 major irrigation works,” Mitsotakis told a gathering of regional prefects on November 9. “These are of paramount importance for a country that invests in primary industry and wants its farmers not to have to worry about their primary resource, which is water.”
The Acheloos projects are not included in the current round of funding.
Turning to face the sun and wind
Given its ample sun and wind, Greece is a green energy laggard in Europe.
In 2019, it produced just 29 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, compared with an EU average of 34 percent.
Portugal, a country of similar wealth and population to Greece, already produces two-thirds of its electric power from renewable sources.
Greece’s straggling is partly because its main energy producer, the Public Power Corporation (PPC), has for 20 years fought tooth and nail to maintain coal as its main energy source. That left the production of electricity from renewables and gas entirely in the hands of private producers. The result of the PPC’s policy was that its share of the electricity market shrank over two decades from 100 percent to 40 percent.
Now, the PPC is turning itself around and turbocharging the green energy revolution.
The beginning of this turnaround came in September 2019, when Mitsotakis announced that the PPC would phase out coal by 2028. At September’s UN General Assembly, he suggested that could now happen as early as 2025.
“We have very poor quality [coal], and have to burn a lot of it to produce the energy we need,” says energy expert Miltiadis Aslanoglou. “Natural gas produces about 300-350 grammes of carbon dioxide per megajoule. A good quality coal produces about 800 grammes of carbon dioxide per megajoule. Our lignite coal produces 1,200 grammes of carbon dioxdie megajoule in the best-case scenario.”
That has led to skyrocketing costs for the PPC, which drew 27 percent of its power from coal last year, and has to buy the right to pollute from Europe’s carbon market. Those polluting rights will burden its balance sheet by about $1bn this year because the cost of carbon permits has more than doubled to more than $70 per tonne since January.
The PPC this year announced an 8.4bn-euro ($9.46bn) investment plan to acquire or create 9.1GW of renewable generating capacity by 2026. This would effectively double the PPC’s current generating capacity, and allow it to shut down its remaining lignite-burning plants. It has raised some of the capital through a capital share increase and by spinning off 49 percent of the country’s low-voltage network, the Hellenic Distribution Network Operator.
The rising cost of carbon permits has been one driver of change. Privatisation has been the other. The Independent Power Transmission Operator, Greece’s high-voltage transmission network, was spun off from the state-controlled PPC during Greece’s economic crisis in 2011, and has since attracted investors.
The result is a $5bn project, currently under way, connecting the biggest Aegean islands to the grid via undersea cables by the end of the decade. This allows the PPC to stop generating electricity from diesel generators on the islands, and reduce the carbon it pumps into the atmosphere each year by almost three million tonnes – about a fifth of its emissions.
By 2030, renewables are expected to exceed 61 percent of Greece’s electricity mix, surpassing EU targets, according to its latest National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP).
Although Greeks overwhelmingly support decarbonisation, they often oppose energy projects in their back yard. Local opposition has killed large wind farm projects on the islands of Serifos and Skyros, and it was a campaign coordinated by environmental groups that stopped the Acheloos dams.
Many of the villagers of Mesohora, which would be flooded if the dam reservoir were filled, are still against the project. The problem, says Panayotis Kotronis, who served as Mesohora community president in the 1980s, is that irrigation priorities sullied green energy priorities.
“This began as a small hydro-electric dam that would go to a height of 80 metres [260 feet],” he says. “The lake would not then flood the village, only about 10 houses. Then, as part of the Acheloos diversion project, it reached 135 metres [443 feet].”
The higher water level caused new problems, says Kotronis. “Now the lake would reach just below the village square. But the top half of the village will also slide into the lake. The studies say there will be slippage.”
The PPC, which built the dams, proposed relocating Mesohora entirely, but a new site was never settled upon.
Locals also have environmental concerns, reflecting growing scepticism about dams.
“The river’s flow is already falling,” says Yiorgos Sakkas, who was community president in 2002-10. “When it doesn’t rain, it’s just a stream. The water flows so slowly it looks green from all the algae that grow in it. We used to call it aspropotamos [the white river].”
Argyro Karayiorgou, a Mesohora resident since birth, dismisses the broader national goal of producing clean energy. “Destroying one environment to save another?” she asks. “If you destroy enough small environments, you destroy the Earth.”
Other Mesohora residents do see the broader good. Konstantinos Kotronis, the nephew of Panayotis, who also served as community president, points to the current energy crisis.
“If a country isn’t energy-autonomous, this has an impact on its people. Energy becomes expensive … [Russian President Vladimir] Putin closes the tap and gas prices shoot up,” he says.
In January 2009, Russian gas monopoly Gazprom shut down gas flow to Europe through Ukraine because of a disagreement over arrears owed by the Ukrainian gas operator. Europe relies on Russia for more than a third of its gas, and southeast Europe is almost a Russian monopoly. The 2009 shutdown led to power outages, factory stoppages and unheated homes in the region, and was a wake-up call for Europe’s energy security.
Self-reliance was the goal when the PPC was founded. It drew on water and coal, both abundant in Greece.
Western Greece became the birthplace of the country’s renewable energy industry, because it receives most of the country’s rainfall, as weather systems move from west to east.
This is where the country’s first dam was built, on the Arachthos river system, in 1950. In the 1960s, three dams went up on the lower reaches of the Acheloos. The PPC drew almost 14 percent of its power from hydroelectricity last year, and most of that came from the Arachthos and Acheloos.
The completion of the Mesohora and Sykia dams is bound to stir controversy anew, but this time local residents may not be an insuperable obstacle. That is because a 2018 law encouraged Greeks to place solar panels on the roofs of the country’s 4.5 million homes, increasing citizen participation in green energy.
A recent study by the environmental think-tank GreenTank revealed that some 466 megawatts of capacity have already been installed, representing four percent of the country’s installed renewable electricity capacity, and a further 4,235MW have been applied for.
“I’m putting solar panels up on my roof [in Trikala],” says Konstantinos Kotronis. “When I’m choosing an environmentally-friendly form of energy at home, I can’t say I’m against it elsewhere.”