Hellenic hope: rapid solar build-out transforms Greece’s coal-laden Valley of Tears

Inaugurated in April 2022, the 204MW Kozani solar park, built adjacent to several lignite mines, is the largest utility-scale solar farm in southeastern Europe. The first of a planned 3GW of solar power to be built in the country’s lignite regions, it represents just the beginning of Greece’s ongoing massive expansion of solar generation capacity.

Western Macedonia has long been Greece’s largest coal producing region. For decades, its lignite mines and electricity generation plants have powered the country, supporting thousands of jobs and anchoring the local economy. 

Despite a planned short-term bounce in response to feared fossil gas shortages due to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, the region is rapidly undergoing a historic transformation away from coal into one of the world’s largest centres of clean solar power.

The new documentary video released by EBC, “Hope Beyond Coal in Greece’s Valley of Tears”, vividly illustrates the challenge, promise and potential of Kozani’s transition away from lignite to clean, affordable and sustainable renewable energy. 

Lignite production falls more than 80 percent since 2012

With the coal industry losing millions of Euros annually, and both nature and citizens worn down by its pollution, politicians, energy producers, and communities are quickly and resolutely blazing a new path. 

Long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Greek lawmakers, Civil Society and a host of investors were already plotting a massive build out of solar capacity in the region.

Greece’s lignite phase out “is an ongoing process,” says Konstantinos Mavros, the Chief Executive of PPC Renewables, part of Greece’s majority state-owned Public Power energy corporation, in EBC’s new film.

As the owner and operator of Western Macedonia’s lignite mines and electricity generation plants, PPC has been a constant presence in the region since the 1950s as both a major employer and polluter.

But to compensate for the falling levels of coal-fired generation – faster in Greece than any other EU country – Mavros assures that “we have a vast deployment of renewables within the depleted mines.” 

The new Kozani array “is just a beginning. We have been there for decades producing [power] from coal, and now we’re going to be there producing cheap and clean electricity from renewables,” he continues. 

Kozani’s planned transformation from coal to solar

In April, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited Kozani to both inaugurate the new solar park and to announce a temporary extension of lignite mining and burning to reduce reliance on Russian gas.

Promising that this decision was only short term, Mitsotakis pledged it would have no impact on Greece’s climate emissions targets and net-zero goal.

Though many local leaders in Kozani have been calling for concrete plans to support its post-coal future, the Just Transition planning process didn’t really get moving until mid-2020. Despite this, Greece became the first EU member state with approved Territorial Just Transition Plans and a Just Development Transition Program for the period 2021-2027.

Many communities have established initiatives to take control over their energy production – helping to ensure a fair transition to a future that is fossil free, and strengthens their communities. 

“Energy communities have a very crucial role to play in solving a number of issues around the energy transition. Primarily, they can significantly contribute to the social acceptance of renewable energy sources,” says former mayor, Lefteris Ioannidis in the film.

“It is nonetheless crucial to achieve the maximum social benefit from this energy transition. Not just for the few, but for the many,” says Ioannidis.

Greece’s renewable energy expansion speeds up

In late June, Greece passed a sweeping renewables law targeting 15GW in new clean energy capacity to be built by 2030, a large portion of which is either now under construction or planned in Kozani. 

The legislation includes a provision to streamline the permitting process that helps fast track the construction of clean energy to enable Greece to more quickly meet its ambitious goals.

Greece’s new renewables law aims to reduce average licensing time for renewables from five years to 14 months while helping develop at least 3.5GW of energy storage by 2030.

By the end of 2022, the share of renewables in the electricity mix is now expected to exceed 50 percent.

As some 2GW of new renewable capacity is now planned to come online by the end of the year, Minister of the Environment and Energy, Kostas Skrekas reminded parliament that the production of electricity from the sun and wind costs up to five times less than from fossil fuels. Greece saves as much as EUR 250 million for every 1GW of renewable energy projects that it connects to the grid, he stated. 

Greece is on track to go beyond coal power by the end of the decade, same as the rest of Europe.

And today, as thousands of solar panels are being installed atop land severely degraded by coal mining, Greece is demonstrating that renewables are the solution to the trilemma of high energy costs, lack of energy security, and lack of protection for our climate and human health.

Story by Michael Buchsbaum, images by Greg McNevin.