For Greece’s clean energy collectives, it’s all about energy democracy

Greece has transposed into law EU directives that stipulate the conditions for forming energy cooperatives and communities, much like those in Germany that kicked off its Energiewende in the 2000s. The first such non-profit solar farms will begin generation in early 2024. The hope is that they’ll set off a prosumer boom across the country. Paul Hockenos reports.

“It’s not foremost about profit or even the slimming down our own utility bills,” says Chris Vrettos, a founding member of the Hyperion renewable energy collective, based in Athens. “It’s about energy democracy and energy justice, too.” “We’re empowering ourselves,” chimes in Takis Grigoriou, also a Hyperion founder, “turning consumers into prosumers.”

In their explanation of Hyperion, one of nine renewable energy co-ops in Greece – the upshot of legislation passed earlier this year – Vrettos and Grigoriou sound a lot like the clean energy pioneers from Germany and Denmark. It was those pioneers and their countries who broke new ground and publicized the benefits not only of renewable energy production but also of energy prosumerism, namely individuals or groups that consume at least some of the energy that they themselves produce. By 2023, Germany boasted more than 900 energy cooperatives or Energiegenossenschaften, and hundreds of others were scattered across northern Europe from Scotland to Austria. Every one of these energy communities sported different profiles – in terms of clean energy generation and related activities – and included many diverse kinds of business models. “Community renewables” or “citizen energy” are the labels for a broad palette of collective energy actions in which citizens and communities engage as partners in clean energy projects.

But eastern and southern Europe lagged far behind, most of these countries without the legal framework for energy communities and thus no from-below energy production movements such as those elsewhere in Europe. But this is changing now, though unevenly, as all of the 27 bloc members transpose 2019 EU decrees, laid out in the EU’s Clean Energy for All Europeans package, to create the legal frameworks for energy communities and energy cooperatives.

In Greece, when this legislation came to pass earlier this year, the 130 people who belong to Hyperion – it was formed in 2020 – jumped on the opportunity. The law provides various benefits for renewable energy communities, including priority in the licensing procedure and the ability to have virtual net metering.

Most of Hyperion’s members hail from Athens. The collective is organized much like the German Genossenschaften and other international cooperatives: all members, no matter how many shares they hold, have one vote. A share costs €100. Its photovoltaic station located near Athens will boast nearly 500 kW of capacity connected to the grid through a medium-voltage network.

Hyperion describes its model as “collective self-consumption through virtual energy netting.” It will work like this: the collectively owned solar park feeds electricity into the local grid. The grid operator tallies the input and then credits the individual members’ utility bills according to their percentage of ownership. “It’s basically self-consumption but indirect self-consumption,” says Vrettos. He and Grigoriou calculate that investors will pay off their investment in just three to four years. After that, they will not pay for electricity as long as the panels are operational.

While Hyperion’s stripe of citizen energy is new to Greece, renewable energy production is not. The Mediterranean country generates roughly half of its power from a combination of renewable energy sources, mostly from photovoltaic and onshore wind farms with eleven gigawatts of installed capacity in total in 2023. Travelling through central Greece, the number of solar and wind farms dotting the countryside resemble those parks in Brandenburg and elsewhere in Germany where renewable energy has taken root and defines the landscape.

This year, the Greek government announced a new programme to subsidize PV rooftop systems with storage capacity. Subsidies for households range up to two-thirds of the total cost, with low-income house owners receiving proportionately more subsidy. For farmers, the incentive ranges from 40% to 60%, according to Balkan Green Energy News. This translates into subsidies of about €10,000 to €16,000 for a rooftop PV combined with a battery.

This programme already has thousands of applicants and Hyperion did not have to look very hard or very long to scare up its over one hundred members. Greece’s cost of electricity per kilowatt is one of the highest in Europe and, blessed with sunshine as it is, photovoltaic and thermal solar here represent dramatically cheaper options. There is currently a waiting list for Hyperion, which can add new members only when it expands production or individual members bow out.

The Hyperion team underscores that the generation of clean energy is only part of its larger vision. It has selected ten low-income families for which it will provide free energy. Also, the cooperative offers workshops, for example on energy efficiency, and other events. It will experiment with energy storage and demand-side management to win them greater attention in Greece.

But the project’s culmination may still face hurdles: for one, it is unclear whether the grid operator has the technical capacity to count and credit the individual members for their energy production. Also, for the Greek energy communities that follow in Hyperion’s footsteps, grid capacity is in short supply in Greece. The grid operators award grid access selectively and appear standoffish about allowing complicated newcomers into the system.

Even though energy communities are just getting off the ground in Greece, Hyperion’s founders are convinced that the model will be popular and find imitators. But for that to happen, Hyperion has to start generating energy and convince the grid operator to cooperate accordingly.

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Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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