Artwork by Mina Lee
Greece experienced a summer from hell with raging wildfires and a punishing heatwave. And that’s less than two years after the war in Ukraine sent energy prices soaring.
But the land of sun and wind is poised to capitalize on the energy transition, says Nikos Tsafos, chief energy advisor to Prime Minister Mitsotakis.
Nikos and I grabbed coffee in Athens this summer and I knew I wanted to interview him for The Gist.
In AHG news, I talked to Semafor about my concern that there is not enough investor or political focus on climate resilience.
- Jim Kapsis, CEO
The Ad Hoc Group
Greece's Climate Transformation
You studied in the US and lived in Washington, DC for many years. How did an expat like you become chief energy advisor to the Greek prime minister?
Nikos Tsafos: It's all because of the war in Ukraine. My background was in natural gas markets and European and Eurasian energy. It was the right person, at the right time, in the right place. I thought, Europe is where you want to be if you want to handle this really unique energy crisis.
How big of a deal was the Russian invasion from a Greek energy perspective?
NT: We used to spend about €1 billion a year to import natural gas. Last year, that number went up to €7.4 billion. That’s 3.5% of our GDP that went purely to import natural gas. We also had to shield consumers. Those support systems amounted to about 5% of GDP.
Greece is really on the frontlines of climate change, with extreme heat and deadly wildfires raging this summer. How are these events changing your approach to the energy transition?
NT: The images coming out of Greece are heartbreaking, a tragic loss of life and property and the natural environment. We know Europe, and the Mediterranean in particular, is warming faster than other parts of the world so, in some ways, we are a precursor. This prime minister has been on the forefront of transitioning Greece’s energy systems and this is reminding us that we need to do what we planned to do.
It’s also showing us the complex interplay between climate change and the energy system. We’ve had extremely high demand for electricity in the summer, which puts pressure on the system. We see a lot of variability in our solar production in June, because we’ve had much rainier Junes than we’re used to. We saw fires taking down cables, affecting reliability. Those interplays are something we have to think a lot more about as we try to figure out how to cope with the changing climate.
It doesn’t seem like climate change is a partisan issue in Greece like the way it is here in the US. Your boss is a center-right politician, loosely equivalent to a Republican. How is it such a different dynamic there?
NT: Obviously, part of it is him. Some of it is the European context. What is considered within the spectrum in Europe is very different from what is considered within the spectrum in the US. You wouldn’t have any real aversion or argument against the energy transition. As the system moves toward wind and solar, we think we can be a major producer in that world and possibly a net electricity exporter in the medium to long term. So, it’s much easier to make the argument that the transition favors us and is based on the natural endowments of the country.
One thing people may not realize is that Greece burns a lot of oil, both for heating homes and making electricity. What’s the plan to get off oil?
NT: Oil is a challenge across the energy system. For electricity, it’s essentially an island issue, so the answer is we’re going to interconnect the islands. In the buildings sector, oil is still the dominant source of space heating. There we have two broad strategies. One is energy efficiency. We have a massive program to try to retrofit buildings. The other thing we haven’t fully launched yet is trying to figure out how to leverage heat pumps and/or district heating.
What kinds of climate/energy tech companies would you like to see in Greece to help support some of these priorities?
NT: We actually have a very serious industrial base when it comes to energy manufacturing. We manufacture some of the best cables in the world for electricity transmission, including offshore wind. So we have a set of industries… that I think folks would find opportunities to come and collaborate with.
The other area is building electrification, as well as the broader digitization of the system. We're a little bit behind in terms of smart meters and smart use of the electricity system. I see opportunities for what you would call ‘energy services’ more broadly.
When you finish your time working for the prime minister, what do you hope your legacy will be?
NT: I think the most immediate thing that I take satisfaction from is I feel like we were able to manage an unprecedented energy crisis quite well.
The other big thing is the Aegean Sea has tremendous potential with offshore wind. I'm trying to get us to that mindset of, we have a great resource. How can we exploit it and how can we think of ourselves not just as one node in a broad system, but really as a producer of energy?
So part of the legacy is making Greece a clean energy exporter?
NT: It's not going to happen tomorrow, but when you look at it, you're like, ‘Wow, if it's a system based on sun and wind, we’ve got both.’
Now, my most important question: Are you going to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3? I hear the family is making a pilgrimage to Greece.
NT: [Laughs] I don’t know that I’ll be there opening weekend, like standing in line, but I’ll watch it. It’s a funny movie.
The Ad Hoc Group is grateful to Nikos Tsafos for his time and insights. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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