Greece’s Dark Age: How austerity turned off the lights

Wikimedia/ User Sandpiper

Voice of America –Kostas Argyros’s unpaid electricity bills are piling up, among a mountain of debt owed to Greece’s biggest power utility.

His family owe 850 euros to the Public Power Corporation (PPC), a tiny fraction of the state-controlled firm’s 2.6 billion euros in unpaid bills.​

Argyros picks up only occasional work as an odd-job man.

The Argyros family are emblematic of deepening poverty in Greece following seven years of austerity demanded by the country’s international creditors. They burn wood to heat their home in winter, food is cooked on a small gas stove, and hot water is scarce.

The only evening light is the blue glare of a TV screen, for fear of racking up more debt.

Five-watt lightbulbs provide a dim glow and Argyros worries about the effect on their eyesight. More than 40 percent of Greeks are behind on their utility bills, higher than anywhere else in Europe.


People in poor neighbourhoods are also increasingly turning to energy fraud, meaning that the problem for PPC is much higher than the mountain of unpaid bills suggests.

Power theft is costing PPC around 500-600 million euros a year in lost income, an industry official said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to divulge the numbers.


PPC, which has a 90 percent share of the retail market and 60 percent of the wholesale market, is supposed to reduce this dominance to less than 50 percent by 2020 under Greece’s third, 86 billion euro bailout deal.

The lenders also want PPC to sell some of its assets, but the company is toiling under the debt of unpaid bills, a problem opposition lawmakers say will force a fire-sale.

In little over a year from June 2015, overdue bills to the 51-percent state-owned firm grew by nearly a billion euros to 2.6 billion, Chief Executive Manolis Panagiotakis told lawmakers in March.


The burden of arrears for PPC is now “so big that some worry it will not be able to lift it for much longer”, said energy expert Constantinos Filis.

The apartment building where the Argyros family live is a testament to that. Many tenants struggle even to pay the 25 euro annual fee to light communal areas such as staircases.

PPC has tried to recoup unpaid bills with phased repayment plan. A total of 625,000 customers owing a total of 1.3 billion euros had signed up to the plan by January.

The Argyros family have also entered the plan with the help of Theofilos, a local charity, which also contributes towards their monthly bills.

Meanwhile, PPC’s provisions for bad debt remain high. The plans drove the figure down to 453 million euros in the nine months to September last year from 690 million a year earlier.

Analysts expect PPC to swing back to a profit of between 63-109 million euros in 2016, with provisions of below 600 million euros.

Filis, the energy expert, said the more things stayed the same, the closer PPC was to “ground zero” and he drew comparisons with the Greek state’s brushes with near bankruptcy during the debt crisis.

“It’s reasonable to say that PPC is too big to allow it to collapse, particularly regarding energy security,” he said. “On the other hand, a few years ago some argued that no country could fail either.”