Greeks Look to Sun for Economic Salvation

Every year, millions of tourists flock to Greece for one reason: sunshine. But now the Greeks and their German neighbors to the cloudier, richer north are looking skyward for economic rays of light.

Named after the sun god of Greek mythology, “Project Helios” is an ambitious new plan to kick-start economic growth. The project would see billions of euros invested in building the world’s largest solar fields across Greece for energy sales to northern Europe.

According to Lazaros Maloutas, mayor of Kozani in northern Greece — one of the plan’s proposed sites — Project Helios would benefit everyone.

“This is an energy route, it’s always been the center for energy in Greece,” he says, explaining that 20,000 hectares of nearby Lignite or “brown coal” mines would be covered with solar panels. “We especially welcome developments in renewable sources of energy. On top of that, we welcome the investment because the effect of the austerity measures here has been great.”

With an estimated cost of $28 billion, foreign investment will be vital, and persuading businessmen to invest in Greek sunshine could be a tough sell. Critics are quick to point out that Greece is ranked 109th in the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” index — below the likes of Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea and even Yemen.

But on a visit to Greece earlier this month, German economics and technology minister Philipp Roesler expressed support for Project Helios. Germany, which recently elected to phase out nuclear energy in the wake of Fukushima, needs alternative energy, and Project Helios would aim to generate 2.2 gigawatts of electricity — a hundred-fold increase on current levels — by 2020.

Of that, exports to Germany could reach 15,000 megawatts.

Aristomenis Syngros, Executive Chairman of “Invest in Greece,” the government agency tasked with bringing in foreign funds, reminds investors the project’s hefty pricetag is precisely why it could pose one pathway out of the debt crisis.

“We need new investments, we need new money,” he says, adding that there are two primary ways to eliminate debt. “One is to sell debt or to minimize the debt, the other is to maximize the GDP. The bigger the GDP is, the smaller the debt. Of course the only way to get out of the crisis is investments, investments, investments.”