PETROS KOUTRAKIS

Energy revolution is coming

Harvard expert tells Kathimerini that Greece needs to prepare for the changes ahead and rely on what it already has in abundance

Energy revolution is coming

The war in Ukraine is having a significant impact on many parts of the world, including Greece, prompting Kathimerini to seek out one of the pre-eminent authorities who can shed light on what this means in terms of energy.

Dr Petros Koutrakis is a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Harvard and head of the Air, Climate and Energy Center, which accommodates researchers from both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

“Einstein said that in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity. I believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a turning point that will forever change security, energy and environmental policy,” says the respected scientist, who was born in Crete and studied at the University of Patra and the University of Paris VII before completing his postdoctoral studies at Harvard in 1988 and joining the faculty in 1991.

“I hope it heralds a new Europe that will be able to defend itself and recover from its addiction to fossil fuels,” he adds.

Can we change the way we produce energy?

The overarching aim is to use solar or wind energy to produce electricity that will, in turn, be used to produce green hydrogen through electrolysis. Then, the hydrogen will react with the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to produce green hydrocarbons, or e-fuel. Trials are already being run at factories in, say, Chile, but I don’t know how long it will take for this technology to produce low-carbon fuel at competitive prices and sufficient quantities to cover global demand. The advantage of green hydrocarbon is that it makes it possible to avoid using hydrogen – which is flammable and very hard to store – directly.

Can electric cars and more widespread battery use solve the problem of the energy crisis?

No. Producing batteries generates a lot of serious environmental problems. What’s more, China produces much of the world’s lithium and we do not want to become dependent on yet another authoritarian regime. Last but not least, the countries where penetration of electric cars is relatively high, at a rate of around 2-4% of their passenger fleet, have problems with their electricity distribution networks. There are more than a billion passenger vehicles in the world. It is impossible to make batteries for all of them and to keep them powered.

Is energy security key to a country’s national security?

Of course it is, and the events of the past couple of months are proof of that. The fact that the overwhelming majority of fossil fuel is produced by countries with undemocratic regimes is extremely alarming. Of course, there is also often a correlation between the existence of fossil fuels and authoritarianism, but that’s a different conversation for a different day.

What kind of energy portfolio could Greece develop?

There’s an energy revolution coming during which we will see shifts in the sectors of electric energy, transportation and manufacturing that will present all sorts of opportunities. Greece does not have hydrocarbons, uranium, precious metals or rare earth elements, but it does have sun and wind, as well as expertly trained scientists and engineers, and creative entrepreneurs. And, most importantly, new technologies do not require excessive amounts of capital, so small and medium-sized enterprises will be able to become manufacturers or producers. We need to seize the opportunity when the time is ripe in terms of energy policy and market forces, and to do so, we need to train the new generation of engineers and technicians now.

Do you share the general optimism about Greece’s undersea natural gas and oil deposits?

There is, indeed, a great deal of interest, but we do not know the exact quantities or if they will be profitable, because they are at very great depths. Demand for fossil fuels is expected to drop in the 2040-50 decade and so will their prices. As a result, fuels with a high cost of production, like the Greek ones, will not be competitive. The market will focus on natural gas with a low production cost, like that from Russia and Qatar. The companies that could be interested in Greek natural gas know this. 

There’s a misconception that the current energy crisis will increase interest in oil and natural gas extraction, even from inaccessible locations. The counterargument, however, is that the same crisis will push us further away from fossil fuels and that companies are likely to avoid high-cost, high-risk investments. Let us also bear in mind that the depth of the deposits would entail the involvement of companies with a great deal of know-how and technology, and that they would have to invest enormous amounts of money. As a result, the Greek government would be at the mercy of a small number of multinationals and in no position to negotiate a fair price. And, finally, there are two more problems: First is that the exploitation of the deposits will increase tensions between Turkey and Greece and, therefore, most of the revenues will have to be spent on military equipment. And, second, offshore drilling for fossil fuels can have a very negative impact on the environment. Just look back at the BP accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. An accident like that in a closed sea, like the Aegean, can pollute the coast and have a devastating impact on tourism, fishing etc.

And what about nuclear energy?

Another misconception is that there’s an infinite amount of cheap uranium that can be used instead of fuel to produce electric energy, leading many countries to develop nuclear installations at a small scale. Greece has an abundance of sun and wind, and any dependence on nuclear energy would be a mistake. Moreover, building a nuclear power plant in such a seismically active country, and in one that is so small – meaning that facilities cannot be located far away from inhabited areas – is not advised. Then there’s the fact that we do not have uranium and would have to rely on imports. Lastly, dealing with nuclear waste is a major problem and Greece does not have geologically stable repositories for radioactive waste. 

From Crete to the USA, via Patra and Paris

What took you to the United States and to Harvard more specifically?

My students often ask me what I did to succeed, and my answer is not what they expect. I tell them that I come from a pretty town in Crete, from Archanes, and from a middle-class family without any great plans. But I was hard-working and ambitious. I did my doctorate in Paris because I had family there, and just before I finished my thesis I sent more than 20 applications to American universities. Harvard was not among them, yet it was the only one I got an answer from! One of the universities had forwarded my letter to Harvard Professor [John] Spengler, with whom I went on to do my postdoctorate. I was lucky to get that opportunity. Of course I love what I do, and I worked very hard.

And what was it that drew you to this field?

The environmental sciences were largely unknown back in the early 1980s when I was a student, but a professor of mine at the University of Patra, had told me about them and I found the idea attractive. Both because it was something new and because it was not a saturated field. I had a hard time explaining to my parents what it was I was doing, though.

What would you tell a youngster to make them interested in this field of science?

That I think we need to focus on two things: the sustainability of the planet and on public health, which are very much related. We need structural changes that are essential to our survival. Climate change, the energy crisis, the safe food chain, sustainable production and recycling of materials, air and water quality are massive challenges that need to be studied by expert scientists. Young people going into these fields can look forward to successful careers and to contributing to social growth.

What do you miss most from Greece?

I miss my family, my friends, the good weather, the food and sea. Thanks to technology, of course, I talk to my friends, I read the news and I watch [my favorite soccer club] OFI’s games.