PPC’s woes need fiscal discipline instead of usual scapegoating

The speaker at Public Power Corporation (PPC)’s annual general meeting had a startling revelation to make. Just a few minutes ago, he said, thumbing through the annual statement of the country’s largest industrial corporation, he had discovered an unaccounted-for deficit and was sharing his discovery with his fellow shareholders. A million kilowatt-hours of electricity have gone missing, he said, and everyone turned speechless. Who had hoarded this large quantity of electricity? Was this the reason PPC’s profits had been halved in 2005? The speaker was unambiguous. There, on Page 15, the table was clear: PPC had produced 52.9 million kWh and sold 51.8 million kWh. What about the 1.1 million kWh difference? We are producing electricity at high cost and we do not sell all of it? How come? Electricity cannot be stored, so someone must be surreptitiously consuming it. In the same general meeting, PPC Managing Director Dimitris Maniatakis offered an alternative explanation for the spectacular drop in profitability. In 2005, turnover rose by 196 million euros compared to the previous year, while the energy cost rose by 389 million. There was a rise in the cost of lignite mining, payments for carbon dioxide emissions and electricity imports through neighboring countries’ grids. The average cost of a barrel of oil rose 47 percent, from $38 to $56, and the cost of natural gas went up 35 percent. For this reason, almost all European electricity producers increased their prices. The price hike rates in other European countries were almost triple what they are in Greece. But Greek consumers bore the brunt of the fuel hikes in other products: Between January 2004 and January 2006, the price of heating oil shot up 57.3 percent and that of unleaded gasoline 22.5 percent, while electricity tariffs went up just 4 percent. Greece has the lowest electricity rates in Europe, at about half the average. This is the reason for excessive electricity consumption and has held back investments for electricity production using wind or solar energy. All governments have used PPC throughout is five-decade existence as a state agency that contributes to keeping inflation under control through low rates, offers electricity to all places in the country at the same price and fills state coffers through the partial sale of shares. Above all, PPC is a way to exercise power. The PPC unionists, for decades trained to share power in the company, exude power themselves. The head of the PPC employees’ association, Nikos Pilalidis, addressed the general meeting immediately after Deputy Development Minister Tassos Nerantzis, who represents the main shareholder, the state. However, Pilalidis is the real day-to-day management boss. He emerged from the third row of seats like a major shareholder and offered his own platform. He accused the energy sector’s regulatory authority of being unfair to PPC and favoring its future (private) competitors. He warned of strife if there is no agreement on pay rises. He offered a veiled threat that angry PPC employees could pull the levers down. He referenced the weather service’s predictions of heat waves this summer. He said he would like to hire more people but at the same social security benefits and wages as current employees. He offered a business proposal: The three state-controlled energy firms – PPC, Hellenic Petroleum and the Public Gas Corporation – should join forces to invest in foreign markets. PPC Chairman Constantine Kyriakopoulos interjected. «We should be honest with people and with each other,» Kyriakopoulos said. «Things go well only when there is mutual trust.» But PPC’s shaky finances are not due to electricity theft alone. One of the general managers set aside the conspiracy theory by explaining the discrepancy between production and sales as a result of the great consumption of electricity by the lignite mines and the natural loss of energy on the grid. In other words, don’t blame the electricity thieves. Make tough decisions instead.