By Joop Hazenberg On

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How fast can Greece transition from brown to green electricity? As the crisis rages on and Greeks look closely at what they can spend, the concept of ‘net metering’ may play an important role. “The coal lobby clearly was behind delaying introducing net metering to Greece,” says an insider.

Solar power panels and especially windmills are not new technologies. Already in the 1980s people were using ‘photovoltaic’ (PV) systems and small wind turbines to generate their own electricity. Some people in the United States made a discovery: when they connected their own system to the official electricity grid, the meter began spinning. Backwards.

The capacity of those units were still small, photovoltaic cells not that efficient (and very expensive). But as the cost of renewable energy is coming down rapidly, countries have to find an answer to the ‘net metering’ issue: is it legal or not? A meter that spins backwards means that energy is given back to the grid. Which not only means lower electricity bills, but possibly even making money. Regulators had to respond, most of the time by forbidding to plug a PV system into the socket.

On a steaming June Monday in busy Athens, we meet with Dimitris Makris, Vice-President of the PV installers union HELIOS in Greece. Makris, fellow unions and a range of NGOs have been lobbying for years to get net metering allowed in Greece, in order to smooth the energy transition. The country is still heavily dependent on burning lignite coal for its electricity production, resulting in massive pollution and health risks. HELIOS and others are arguing that Greece could better rely on the other ‘indigenous’ sources: wind and sun.

Dimitris MakrisFeed in, phase out

Back in 2006 everything looked fine. That year, many Greeks started investing in solar power panels because of a ‘feed-in tariff’ that was introduced by the government. For a number of years the government would guarantee a price for electricity produced with such panels, so that people would have certainty on return on investment.

But when the crisis hit Greece full swing in 2010, austerity measures were announced. And in 2012 the feed-in rate was slashed so much that the PV market crashed, recalls Makris. “The demand went to zero.” He and his colleagues, several thousands by that time, were about to lose their job. But as the price of PV systems went down fast in that same time, they realised that ‘net metering’ would be possible.

The system is simple. People give electricity back to the grid when they are producing a lot of it (for instance during the same time). They are not paid for this electricity. But at night they can use the ‘normal’ energy, for free if they had given enough in the daytime and when the sun was shining.

With net metering in the law, Greek society could go through an upheaval – a positive one, to be sure. “A typical house will need a PV system of around 8,000 euros,” says Makris. “That amount used to be twofold. So generating your own power comes within reach of a lot of people. As the penetration of renewables becomes higher, you basically make the energy system more democratic.”

Already, over ten percent of Greece’s electricity is produced via solar power panels. The PV industry accounted for nearly 50,000 (in)direct jobs – similar to the entire existing electricity sector, which is dominated by the lignite and oil burning state company PPC.

Rendering_of_PP_Renewables_50_MW_solar_photovoltaic_park_Greece_Image_PPC_Renewables

Pioneering net metering

In 2013 HELIOS started getting organisations together that might be interested to get net metering into the law. Several other countries in Europe, like the Netherlands, Denmark and Cyprus had it, so why not Greece?  Dimitris Makris: “We started our lobby with a small number of installer companies. And as the idea started gaining ground, other people jumped in and we connected to NGOs like Greenpeace and WWF. Especially Greenpeace was really one of the pioneers, already proposing it in 2000.”

Still, the first proposal from the net metering coalition was met with scepticism by the Ministry of Energy and it took Markis and others two years to get it into law. “Nobody said no, but the system itself was showing resistance. In Cyprus the introduction only took three months. Now, half a year after the law was passed (in December 2014), we still can’t offer net metering to the market.”

The PV installer does have an idea where the resistance comes from. “The coal lobby really was the main cause for delaying the whole net metering law in Greece. It’s pretty obvious that when you have a particular share in the market and a position as an organisation you try to defend it.”

The coal lobby, in the form of the state company PPC and the labour unions, argued that lignite is a cheap and above all domestic resource and should therefore be used to keep Greece independent. An argument which resonates well in the crisis-struck country where foreign involvement is a daily reality.

But Makris doesn’t agree with this kind of reasoning. “Lignite is not cheap because it is not of the best quality.” PPC has to burn a lot of lignite to produce electricity, more than for instance in Germany where lignite has a higher caloric value. Further on, Greece has better and cheaper options: renewables. “We can now produce energy from wind and the sun that is cheaper than the retail price of the grid.”

Bridge to the future

So net metering is the solution and will make Greece switch to green energy in a few years? Not quite, admits Makris. “We still need storage of electricity, and the cost of storage is still high.” Everyone in the industry expects 2020 to be the turning point. By that time, batteries and other storage systems will become so cheap and so powerful that people and businesses can become completely independent of the grid. “Net metering is not much more than a bridge between now and the real future. A future in which the electricity system will be completely disrupted.”

Slowly, the first applications for net metering systems are coming in, and the PV unions are meeting with the grid operator to get the process going. The ministry isn’t pushing the introduction of net metering because the left-wing Syriza government believes more in lignite and labour unions, than in solar power panels and decentralization, says Dimitris Makris. “This is too bad because we want all households to move to the new era. A renewables-based economy will create thousands of new jobs.”

And do Greeks actually have 8,000 euros to spend on a solar power system, in a time when unemployment is rife and people with a job aren’t earning a lot? HELIOS hopes that the government allows for another introduction: to have PV systems leased rather than bought. “In California you can lease the PV system and pay a monthly fee. This also attracts investors. But leasing is explicitly forbidden in Greece.”

Check out the video interview with Dimitris Makris here: