“My 10-years old niece once told me that Ptolemaida’s lignite plants echo Titanic’s funnels”. The majority of the Greek population associates Western Macedonia and especially the areas of Ptolemaida and Kozani with the lignite power production plants. This established social perception is justified, after a brief examination of the region’s data. Now, the whole district stands before a crossroad, trying to change its energy structural organization, through a shift from the fossil-fuel to decarbonized production. It is of great importance to evaluate, if this transformative juncture is viable, mitigating at the same time the possibility of regional impoverishment and the following social effects. Before we proceed to the main examination, it is fundamental to provide the core information which frame our analysis.
Western Macedonia is a region in north-western Greece with a population of approximately 280,000 people. The year 1956, marks the beginning of the intensive exploitation of the lignite deposits of Western Macedonia, which accelerated rapidly over the years that followed, covering thereby most of the electricity and energy demand in Greece. The lignite-fired power plants and district heating systems dominate Western Macedonia’s economy to a large extent, strengthening meanwhile the employability of the local residents. But this economic growth came at a high social and environmental cost. Additionally, this high dependence on lignite exploitation created a social complacency which contributed to the neglect of alternative economic and technologically advanced activities.
Climate change has mobilized the EU and the international policy forums to take the efficient measures to achieve the transition to a climate-neutral society, by establishing an economy with net-zero gas emissions by 2050. This transformation constitutes a global phenomenon, an attempt to create a green energy model. In the framework of these events, the Greek government proposed, in December of 2019, the so-called “National Energy and Climate Plan”, aiming to accelerate the delignitization process of the lignite-intensive region of Western Macedonia by shutting down all lignite plants till the year 2028. But if this high-speed transition doesn’t follow practically the notion of “just transition”  and the EU’s goal of “no one is left behind”, then the structural reconstruction of the energy model will have a societal cost: unemployment, declining living standards, widening inequalities, migration and regional degradation.
The green transition project sets both environmental and economic targets, whose effectiveness is strongly interconnected with the current global affairs. The war in Ukraine has led to the emergence of two narratives. Firstly, it is vital for the EU to embrace energy autonomy, by focusing on sustainable forms of power generation (renewable energy sources, RES). Secondly, the Union’s vulnerable status of energy supply security, which originates from EU’s high dependency rate on energy imports, the pressure on the economic system and the following inflation as results of the ongoing war, and the same nature of this transition- a difficult, gradual process- altered policies’ direction. The temporary life expectancy extension of carbon power-plants that is proposed, indicates the fluidity of this project.
The initial aim of this research paper is to contribute to the literature regarding the experiences of individuals who live in a highly industrialized region that face the menace of deindustrialization. Oral history provides the essential methodological tools for bringing into the fore “living” primary sources. Most importantly, the interviews with locals from Western Macedonia enabled the conduction of a panoramic analysis of the so-called green-transition process of Western Macedonia, by focusing on down to top approaches.
A hypothesis underpins the research: can we detect the existence of a social division in Western Macedonia, regarding the viability of decarbonization and energy transition? Following up, does this division constitute the cause which sets further obstacles into the application of the energy plans and makes the social effects of the decarbonization even heavier? At a second level, a concern surrounds the question of whether this transformation of the power production system consists of a segue transition into a healthier and “greener future”, or will this process eventually lead to the impoverishment and decay of the district?
“The maternal Public Power Corporation”
The majority of the local population of Western Macedonia uses a distinct characterization in order to describe the beneficial contribution of the PPC to the regional economic growth and infrastructure development. The PPC, according to the interviewees, is identified with the maternal role. It’s the “parent” that provides employment and a competitive income to a considerable number of families, collaborates with municipal authorities on the efficient implementation of various projects, supports the expansion of local businesses and finances social services. Sofia argues that the PPC was a lifeline for many families, which managed to secure an income, social status and an adequate quality of life working as temporary staff (through 6-month and 8-month contracts on a rolling basis). Additionally, all of the interviewees seemed to reach a common ground and recalled that their parents and grandparents were certain that “the working future of our children is secured”, but also confident that the next generation will remain and continue living in the region; the possibility of migration was thought to be an exception. Sofia continues by mentioning the social role of the corporation as it constitutes the fundamental funding entity for volunteer organizations, educational projects, schools, universities and medium-sized enterprises’ upgrading. Ourania added the importance of the continuous sponsorship of cultural and athletics activities or festivities.
“Every time we were in need of economical support and funding, the PPC was the first door that we were knocking”.
As Savvas and Ourania observe, the locals enjoyed several benefits from the lignite exploitation, such as a stable monthly decrease in the payable amount of the electricity bill (especially for the workers at the corporation and vulnerable social groups). The PPC, the past years, proceeded to the expropriation of many villages in order to enable the lignite mining procedures. As a result, entire villages were relocated and the corporation awarded high financial compensations to their inhabitants. The interviewees agree that, despite the emotional roller coaster, relocation difficulties and separation from their birthplace, this amount of money helped them rebuild their lives, redeem quondam loans or buy property, apartments and cars. For them, the lignite is the “black gold” and these power plants constitute the heavy industry which “creates life” and boosts the economy. They argued that Western Macedonia before lignite was undeveloped and looked like a village.
“The whole region looked like a pastureland. Agriculture and livestock farming were the main economic activities and in general, there was nothing special about this part of the country. From a small village, the periphery transformed into Greece’s energy center”.
Hence, the relationship status between the residents of the lignite dominated areas and the PPC embraces paternalistic characteristics and idealizes the economic advantages, while ignoring the environmental and health handicaps that have long-term negative effects on the regional economy. The locals are completely dependent on lignite, because they believe that this is the only, known way, to enjoy a stable future.
Environmental Effects of Lignite Exploitation
Lignite, according to the Greek standards, is the cheapest fuel, the most profitable option for electricity production. However, according to several reports from regional hospitals and volunteer groups, the burning of fossil fuels gradually leads to the deterioration of the environment and precipitates climate change due to the release of great amounts of contaminants in the atmosphere. Lignite burdens the environment, the quality of air and water, biodiversity and human health. The lignite fired plants were in complete operation for 70 years and indubitably, this long-lasting process has affected the regional climate at a large scale. Especially in Ptolemaida’s basin a large plume of smoke often makes its appearance and creates burdened atmospheric conditions. My father characteristically states that pollution affects his sleep, as he needs more hours in order to rest and some days he faces difficulties awakening. The interviewees shared descriptions of the visible results of lignite exploitation, but while acknowledging its negative impact, they seem to have accepted living in a highly polluted area as an established “reality”.
“…When the lignite plants were in complete operation, every day we were co-existing with pollution. Water pollution was really extensive and the noise was continuous. I recall that the tile roofs of the houses had lost that brick-red color and had turned brown, due to the large amounts of fly ash. Also, during the winter, when it was snowing, snow would acquire a brown thin layer and couldn’t remain white for more than 24 hours… “
“…Some days of the year, we could see the sunrise from our village an hour and a half later, because multiple factors, such as smoke, steam and temperature difference [in cold days], contributed to the creation of a huge cloud, which was hiding the sunrise. I was witnessing this paranormal phenomenon while I was returning home after work!”
It’s immediately understood, that lignite is really damaging the renvironment and its characterization as “climate killer” is completely justified and scientifically proven.
Impact of Lignite on Public Health
“In our family our children have allergic rhinitis! They are sneezing instantly, while opening our house door”
Air pollution originating from lignite-fired power plants in Western Macedonia has severe consequences for the public health of the local population. The interviewees underlined that their chronic exposure to air and water pollution has increased the incidents of cancer, heart disease, bronchitis and in some cases premature deaths among many of their older relatives and friends. Sofia shared her experience at the Pediatrics clinic, while being emotional, about the growing number of children’s cases with allergies and respiratory problems, as well as the fact, that inhabitants of Ptolemaida were three times as likely to suffer from allergic rhinitis as the average Greek. Additionally, she added that thromboembolic events show a clear critical upward tendency the last years. Savvas and Kimon on the other hand, mention the severe health issues that the lignite miners and workers in the wider area deal with as soon as they are retired from work (ranging from hearing problems to cancer).
“My house is 20 km from the lignite plants. Many retired co-workers of mine have been diagnosed with serious health problems. After 30 years of work, when you breath constantly toxic smoke and the fly ash, it is a matter of time for the respiratory diseases to make their appearance”.
Working Conditions in Lignite Plants
“I know that a small number of my former classmates became orphans because their parents or siblings were killed, while working at the lignite plants”
Savvas and Kimon provided a brief description of the working conditions at the lignite plants. The nature of this job is demanding and mine workers face numerous dangers on a daily basis. There have been many registered accidents. They both mentioned that the working schedule didn’t have enough breaks and the duration of the shifts was approximately 10 hours. Additionally, the toxicity of the environment caused by the dust, high temperatures, noise, emission of gases, but also unexpected incidents, such as fires and faulty handling of the machines and mining equipment, create an extremely rough environment.
During the interview, Savvas expressed his wish to retire from the mines and his fear that he might become unemployed, due to the delignitization process. On the other hand, Kimon shared the same wish as Savvas: to retire from the lignite plant and enjoy his life in Ptolemaida. Despite the hard-working conditions and the dangers, they argue that the “lignite employer” was an important income source for their families and they felt privileged to be working there.
“It was my first choice! My technical education played a role to that decision. This is what we have in our region, the biggest industry, and feel lucky like that I work there”.
Ourania made another impressing point: “When a region develops because of one and only source, you don’t have a choice, you accept that and you compromise partly with the negative consequences.”. She continues by saying that if its function had been planned, at first, according to the essential environmental conditions, the society wouldn’t face such a problem.
“Ptolemaida, in a few years, will be a village”
Kimon, after he migrated to Mannheim and rebuilt his life there with his family, doesn’t consider returning to Ptolemaida. For him, this was a difficult decision and he was aware, because of his active membership at the local labor union, that many dismissals of workers will occur in the future. This is not a single case. Many former co-workers of his also lost their jobs and migrated to other European countries, mostly Germany and the UK.
“Here in Mannheim, I know about 240 people from the mines who migrated, because Germany needs skilled workers. Some of them came with the prospect to return, but personally, I will travel to Greece only for my summertime vacation. If my kids also live and work here, why should I leave?”.
Migration of dismissed industrial local miners to European countries constitutes a spreading phenomenon, because there is no alternative working option or accessible retraining programs for their replacement into “greener workplaces”. Savvas stated that many of his co-workers are thinking for “a plan b”, because they feel uncertain about their positions. He is also afraid about the future of his young children and for his economical capability to provide them the necessary support for their future. Furthermore, abandoning their hometown does not concern only middle-aged workers, but this tendency shows growing rates among younger ages. Sofia’s kids after gaining their university degrees, tried “desperately” to find a satisfying job in Ptolemaida, but according to her, there is no available prospect, and it is possible that they will move to another place in the immediate future. It is clear that the lignite plants have completely dominated the area and did not leave a leeway for the development of alternative economic activities. At this point, the end of the lignite era means for them the death of the region. As Savvas marks:
“If we proceed to the phase-out and terminate the function of the lignite plants, we don’t only shut down these plants, but we shut down the whole region and its future”.
“At this point we are talking, young people live from their parents’ pensions”.
Ourania and Kimon mentioned during the interviews, that the delignitization process will transform the image of Ptolemaida drastically. It’ll look like a town “full of old retired people” and the remaining elderly population will live in “the cafes’ town”. This allusion can be interpreted in the following way. In Ptolemaida, neo-enrichment is an idea which dominated the area for many years. The sudden transformation of the region to the national electricity center gave the impression of stable and permanent wealth. Now, in the context of delignitization, the PPC gives subsidies and re-opens some workplaces in the lignite plants in the form of non-extendable 8-month contracts to boost the economy and make this transition smoother. But, after the completion of the program, there is not an alternative working absorption system. Therefore, instead of attracting the necessary investments and promoting alternative economic activities, the PPC misuses its capital and continues to reproduce the illusion that post-lignite development will eventually happen.
When the interviewees were officially informed about the implementation of the national delignitization project, their main feelings were bitterness, frustration, anxiety and fear. The nightmare of unemployment became a clear threat and the population turned against the terms of the transitional initiative.
“The image of the closed plants saddens us. These were our life; our house and we defend our house because we know our needs. But I have to admit that we are generally afraid of change”.
We have to stress that the interviewees are not opposed to the transition to the greener economy as they understand that this event is a result of climate change, but the majority is against the abruptness of the national plan. According to them, it does not provide the necessary, alternative work positions to the industry miners and there is absence of retraining programs. The area would need new sources of wealth. If this does not happen, then they claim that impoverishment will be the final destination. Slowly, they’ll witness the closure of businesses, the rise of unemployment and the scattering of the population,. This phenomenon has been previously observed in highly industrialized areas in midwestern USA and the UK, which didn’t manage to liberate effectively from the fossil fuels and enable the establishment of a different economical paradigm.
“The little mirrors”
The promotion of renewable energy sources, the creation of Europe’s biggest photovoltaic park in Kozani, as well as the promising capabilities of the new electricity plant-Ptolemaida V- which will function at first with lignite and then convert to natural gas, don’t constitute a satisfying and sustainable solution according to the interviewees. RES constitute a climate neutral method for energy generation, but they don’t require the employment of a huge number of workers.
“The workplaces that are being lost are so much more than those created”.
RES should have a supporting and not absolute role. Regarding Ptolemaida V, they underlined that this new plant will work for some years with natural gas and this will soon be shut down. The interviewees agreed that the region should continue lignite exploitation as other European countries do (Germany, Poland). The requirement is to upgrade the existing plants with new technologies and filters that will reduce the negative environmental impact and will promote, the so-desired, smooth transition.
Role of Regional Key- Actors
The labor unions, civil society, NGO’s, the academia and media platforms constitute the primary stakeholder groups that apply pressure to the political authorities. After a short conversation with Ptolemaida’s mayor, the following realization arose: At the specific case of the delignitization process, the regional authorities  act as a pressure actor, in alignment with society’s desires, in order to make this initiative efficient. First of all, they applaud the actions which target to transform the future into a greener one and in general they are not opposed to delignitization. The social frustration and discontent concern the transition methods and the fast-tracked phase-out, which neglects the negative impact of the transition on local communities. Ourania mentioned that through her role at the press office of labor unions and her journalistic active profile, she seeks to make this process more anthropocentric and convince the competent authorities that Western Macedonia needs an energy reconfiguration that will help Ptolemaida flourish again. Kimon, Savvas and Sofia, on the other hand, referred to the need of including environmental volunteer groups in policy making, as well as the strengthening of the role of the local university (University of Western Macedonia) and its research programs about lignite and climate.
“This is not an impersonal transition and unorganized actions hurt us. This change affects people, affects us and we want our voices to be heard”.
“We don’t want things to be rushed, a transition can’t occur just in a few years. What I see is anarchy”.
The “Next Day” In Greek Western Macedonia
All four interviewees expressed pessimism and argued that impoverishment is a real possibility. They believe that the region needs investments and utilization of the public land for the development of alternative economic activities, such as agriculture, livestock farming, greenhouses and promotion of agrotourism. After the end of the lignite era, the local residents will need different kinds of occupation.
“Without a change of direction and plans, impoverishment stands at the end of the tunnel”.
“If the current situation remains, what future? I don’t see a future”.
Total abandonment of lignite is not an option for them: “you cannot renounce your national fuel”. On the other hand, they see a window of opportunity in this transitional period and they believe that there is still time for a fundamental change. But we have to rush, if we want to save “the electric heart of Greece”.
After this analysis, the initial hypothesis about the social division should be rejected. All of the interviewees supported the transition, but not its terms. In this context, the transition strategy in Western Macedonia and the reformation of the regional economic system should be organized in an efficient way, because it is an intricate, multi-level and long-lasting process. Energy transition entails both the choosing the best technical solutions to decarbonize the energy system and the consideration that human behaviors play a central role in the societal transformation. The intensification of the lignite phase-out process has increased the necessity of structural adjustments in the region that promote the notion of just transition, which constitutes a global request. Thus, the challenges related to unemployment, slow economic diversification, energy instability and the existing possibility of impoverishment can be overridden with immediate action.
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 “Just Transition is the term used to describe the transition to a climate-neutral economy while securing the future and livelihoods of workers and their communities. A Just Transition to a climate-neutral economy provides and guarantees better and decent jobs, social protection, more training opportunities and greater job security for all workers affected by global warming and climate change policies”. Eurofound, 10 June 2022
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