Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ speech at the “Power Summit 2024-Lights On”

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attended the “Power Summit 2024-Lights On”, organised by the European Federation of National Associations of Electricity Companies (Eurelectric), in Lagonissi.

The Prime Minister’s speech follows:

“Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to Greece. I understand from the organisers that you’ve never had such a number of delegates join your gatherings over the past years, and I guess it must have something to do with the location and the weather. But this summit is being held here not just because Greece is a beautiful country and because this is an extraordinary location, but also because the Public Power Corporation brought this event to Greece.

I do want to start by pointing out that the PPC has undergone a truly remarkable transformation in recent years under the leadership of George Stassis. I remember when I began my tenure as Prime Minister five years ago, PPC was probably the most pressing problem we were facing at the time. It was financially challenged and maybe I need to be more blunt, it was literally on the verge of bankruptcy. It was organizationally lethargic, and strategically, it was way, way behind its times.

But today, the situation is completely different. The PPC transformation story has been truly, I think, remarkable. It is a regional powerhouse. It is a serious player on the European stage as is evident by George’s role in EuroElectric. The fact that we are meeting today in this room, I think, is a testament to that change.

But what happened with the Public Power Corporation is but one example of Greece’s broader transformation over the past five years. When we came into power in July 2019, this country was literally devastated by a decade-long economic crisis. It had paid very dearly for believing populist fantasies. In 2015, we almost literally crashed out of the Eurozone. The economy was stagnant. We had the lowest growth rate between 2015 and 2019 of all Eurozone countries. Young Greeks were voting with their feet and abandoning the country in search of more opportunities abroad.

Today, the situation is very, very different. Our growth rate is twice the EU average and forecasts remain high for the foreseeable future. We have lowered our public debt more than any other European country since 2019. Nobody is questioning Greece’s commitment to fiscal discipline. Investment, industrial production, exports, are booming. Credit agencies rate Greece as investment grade again after more than a decade.

High unemployment, when we came into power, unemployment was at 17%, has given way to now companies complaining that they cannot fill the jobs that they advertise for. Many Greeks who left during the crisis are actually returning or coming back, and we will honour their trust in the country.

I think that energy has been one of those areas, one of those sectors where our progress has been most, I would say, extraordinary. In 2019, just a few months after I was sworn in as Prime Minister, I addressed the United Nations General Assembly, and at the time, I made the commitment that Greece would shut down all its lignite plants by 2028.

Now, ahead of plan, we’re actually close to meeting this target. In 2023, our lignite generation was at its lowest point over 50 years. Output has declined by 87% relative to its peak. As lignite is phased out, renewables are taking its place.

I just came back from a campaign trip to Western Macedonia, which was where most of our lignite was extracted. It is indeed impressive to see the old coal plant sitting idle, and lots of solar currently occupying the space. It’s a very good indication of what has been happening across the country since 2019.

We have practically more than doubled our installed capacity, not just of solar, but also wind and solar. Greece is now a world leader when it comes to the penetration of wind and solar. We’re fourth in the world, if you include smaller countries that mostly import electricity. Second in the world, if you do not, and only Denmark has a higher penetration of electricity from wind and solar. This is a pretty remarkable achievement, and it did happen rather quickly.

This growth in renewables is a part of a broader system transformation. In 2023, we doubled investments in our grids relative to the average of the years between 2020 and 2022, which in turn was 50% higher than what it was in the period between 2012 and 2019. We are investing in pump hydro. We have held two auctions for grid scale batteries. We’re looking, again, and PPC has a leading role to play in this, in our hydro resources, recognising that the prudent management of water can help on the one side with balancing the grid, but also building up our resilience against the climate crisis. We’re finally rolling out smart meters.

When I look at this energy transition, I see significant opportunity. Greece has traditionally been resource, with the exception of lignite, has been resource poor in terms of fossil fuels. But we do have a bright sun and we do have strong winds. Anyone who has spent time in Greece knows this, and these resources can act as the backbone of a completely different energy system.

Right now, our main headache is how to handle the incredibly high interest that companies have to invest in Greece. To a certain degree, one can argue that we have been victims of our own success, and we have yet to tap our most promising resource, and that is offshore wind, primarily in the Aegean Sea, which has probably the best offshore wind capacity of any other area in the entire Mediterranean.

We see Greece can become a significant net electricity exporter over the years to come. This is already happening for some hours, but as we fully exploit our potential, these hours will eventually multiply.

Stepping beyond our national borders, we have also been able to influence the European agenda when it comes to energy. It’s also a testament to the fact that Greece is no longer perceived as a problem child of Europe, but as a confident country that can punch above its weight and drive policy at the European level, not just at the national level.

We actually played up some role in terms of coping with the energy crisis that Russia triggered after its invasion of Ukraine. I was advocating for some cap on natural gas prices for quite some time before the European Union decided to go down that path.

I was actually the first to put the issues of grids and interconnections at the level of the European Council. This was, I think, the starting point, which led to the EU action plan on grids. And your initiative here, I understand Grids for Speed is an important contribution in this conversation.

And grids have a key role to play, not just in enabling the energy transition of each country. In our case, for example, a big priority is making sure that we interconnect our islands. A big milestone was set with the interconnection of Crete, which is my home island, but the interconnections are expanding to all the important islands of the Aegean and the Ionian.

But of course, interconnection and grids matter also across Europe. You know better than me that we’re still far away from a single market in Europe. The lack of proper interconnectors is one reason. Countries at the periphery, such as Greece, sometimes move at a different rhythm than those that find themselves at the core, at the centre of Europe. We see that strong interconnectors can help us balance our system more easily, especially if we can complement the sun of the Mediterranean with the wind of the North Sea.

I always keep referring to a nice diagram that my energy adviser showed me, which really indicates how much excess wind capacity we have in the winter in northern Europe and how much excess solar capacity we have in the south during the summer. If we were able to have proper grids, then we would really be able to help carry energy from where it is cheapest to produce to where it is most needed and helping us deliver the energy transition, which is a necessity for all of us, but to do it at a lower cost. To accomplish this, I think we need to think in pan-European terms and beyond merely national interests.

We do need continent-wide planning, and we need to, I think, visualise electricity flows across broader space, eventually bringing North Africa, even the Middle East, into play. We, for example, are discussing three gigawatt interconnection, electricity interconnection with Egypt.

Of course, we need continent-wide resources to make these investments possible. I will continue to advocate for those. I was one of the major proponents for the Recovery and Resilience Facility which Europe created during the pandemic when we took a very bold decision against what many countries believed at the time was the appropriate strategy to borrow at the European level and to support both the green and the digital transition, but also to support jobs.

This happened during the pandemic. Greece is a significant, highest per capita recipient of funds from the RRF, a total of €36 billion in grants and loans to be invested in Greece until 2026.

But of course, we also have to take into account our shifting to a strategic agenda. We see other regions, in particular the US and China, have their own plans for the transition, and we need to incorporate these realities.

Frankly, I’ll be very blunt with you, when I look at the scale of our ambitions in terms of becoming a geopolitical powerhouse in terms of driving the green and the digital transition, supporting jobs, and then I look at the resources that we allocate to those priorities as a clear mismatch at the European level, and this is something that we need to recognise.

And at the same time, I firmly believe that we cannot erect barriers and expect Europe to be competitive through protectionism. But at the same time, we cannot allow European industry to wither away under a new competition. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but it must be a balance that also needs to work for all European countries and not just for those that have the fiscal space to spend freely.

Some countries are in a stronger fiscal position. Of course, if state aid rules are bent very, very easily, it is those countries that have a strong fiscal position that would eventually distort the single market by simply supporting their national champions in a way that maybe other countries cannot do.

But most importantly, the Green Deal needs to exist alongside other urgent tasks. We are at the forefront of the climate crisis here. In Greece, last year, we experienced not just heatwaves and wildfires. We’re accustomed to wildfires, but we also for the first time experienced at this scale, extremely catastrophic floods. All this happened within the span of a few months.

There is also a fundamental discontinuity within the Green Deal between the funds that are allocated to mitigation, and rightly so with our very lofty ambitions to become carbon neutral by 2050, and those actually committed to adaptation. Because when natural disasters strike, I cannot just go to my farmers and talk to them about eventually precision farming and replacing their tractors with electric tractors. They need support here and there. We need to understand that coping with the climate crisis also will require significant adaptation of funding in the years to come.

In Greece, also using European funding, we are investing more than €2 billion over the next 3-4 years to bolster our civil protection infrastructure.

All this is happening at a time when our strategic situation remains precarious. We know we must devote more resources to defence and more than two years into a devastating war, we cannot harbour illusions about the utility of smart military investment.

We need a European strategy for strategic autonomy. This is coming from a country that has been systematically spending more than 2% of its GDP on defence, at a time when other countries were spending barely 1%. You do the math over 30 years, Greece never actually benefited from the peace dividend after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union. But now this again becomes a priority on all fronts.

But let me conclude that in a few weeks from now, Europeans will go to the polls to elect a new parliament, and I would hope that the forces of reason and moderation will again prevail. Of course, I’m campaigning for my own political family, the European People’s Party, which is going to be the biggest party in the European Parliament.

But by ourselves, we need to make sure that we have the proper allies to drive through reasonable changes and to restrict the influence of the extremes. My belief and Greece’s belief is that we need more Europe and not less. There are people who think we must slow down the energy transition. I’m not one of them. It’s an economic, strategic, and geopolitical imperative, but we must carry out a transition that makes sense and one that also gives the member states maybe a little bit more room to experiment and select the path that suits their individual circumstances. It’s important to remain flexible and pragmatic rather than very prescriptive and very dogmatic.

If you, for example, look at the impact that the Green Deal has had on our farmers, I do think that maybe we got the balance slightly wrong in terms of imposing unnecessary bureaucratic restrictions without understanding the impact that these would have on the livelihoods of our agricultural sector today.

But in the end, what matters is not just climate neutrality after all. We are not the only ones in Europe. We cannot, by ourselves, determine what will happen with the fate of global emissions. But what matters equally is for Europe to be a strong economically and socially vibrant, but more importantly, geopolitically relevant around the world. This Europe certainly will be a green Europe, but how we get there matters just as much.

Thank you very much for inviting me, and I wish you the best in your proceedings”.