Energy: Italian mountain village finds the good life

"The political class is going against the people's will...alternative energy sources have the potential to be very popular."

Varese Ligure, 2 July (AKI) - With hundreds of miles of coastline, various mountain ranges and one of the sunniest climates in Europe, Italy is ideally suited to develop wind and solar power, yet the proportion of electricity generated from green energy sources here is among the lowest in Europe: a mere 4.5 percent. However, one picturesque mountain village in the northern Italian region of Liguria which meets all its energy needs and more from renewables - has set an example for the rest of Europe. The mayor of Varese Ligure, Maurizio Caranza, told Adnkronos International (AKI) how this feat has been achieved.

"Ten years ago, VareseLigure's population had shrunk from 6,000 to 2,250 people. We realised the only thing to do to prevent the village from dying was to protect the environment and rehabilitate the agriculture sector," Caranza said.

"Today, the population is stable and Varese Ligure produces all its electricity from green energy sources. We chose the environmental certification route and to save energy, using all the renewable energy sources available," he said.

"Tourism is an important sector for six months a year, local farmers produce an abundance of organic fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy products, and the village now recycles 25 percent of its refuse," he said. "Because the political will existed, we succeeded in arresting Varese Ligure's decline," Caranza stressed.

Varese Ligure was the first European community to receive the ISO 14001 (1999) and EMAS II (2002) environmental certification awards, as well as a European Union prize for Best Renewable Energy Partnership in Rural Communities (2004).

The village has two windmills in operation - jointly owned by the village of Varese Ligure and a local electricity company - which produce an annual four million kilowatts of electrical power. "This is three times the amount of electrical energy the village needs. We sell the rest to the national grid which earns us 30,000 euros a year," Caranza explained.

The 46-metre tall windmills come into view as one enters Varese Ligure, perched atop a mountain ridge above the village - their white, tapering blades turning silently and rhythmically. They prompt differing reactions: some claim they blight the landscape while others find them strangely beautiful.

Two more windmills are being built to generate a further three million kilowatts of electricity annually. By the end of the year, the village will produce enough electricity to meet the needs of 7,000 people, Caranza noted proudly. "We will sell all the surplus power at a good price," he said.

Varese Ligure has installed solar panels on the roof of the town hall and the local middle school, as well as on the roof of its only hotel. These produce a further 23,000 kilowatts annually and the panels on the town hall and hotel roofs generate enough electricity to heat and provide enough hot water for both.

"Our windmills and our solar panels help reduce by 0.05 percent Liguria's annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions," said Caranza. When asked why he believes there are not more 100-percent renewable villages in Italy he pinpointed bureaucracy, the very high costs of connection to the national grid, and a lack of funding as the main obstacles.

It took Varese Ligure one year to get approval from Italy's central authorities for its windfarm project and another year to be connected to the national grid - and at a cost of 450,000 euros. Italy's main electricity supplier ENEL had originally asked for the sum of 900,000 euros.

A project to build a small hydroelectric dam in Varese Ligure - that could produce another one million kilowatts - has been on hold for many months, as it would cost 1.1 million euros to build and the village has been so far unable to obtain the funding, Caranza said.

Hydroelectric power currently generates the lion's share (76.7 percent) of Italy's green electricity supply, compared with just 3.31 percent from wind and a tiny 0.048 percent from solar energy, according to Italy's environment ministry (citing the most recently available 2004 data).

"Solar panels still cost too much. " Caranza stressed. An average solar panel costs some 20,000 euros. He and deputy mayor Michela Marcone agreed that grants should be made available to private citizens and businesses wanting to install solar panels. By failing to provide more incentives for the take-up of renewable energy, "the political class is going against the people's will," said Marcone.

"There is a lot of interest in environomental issues and I think that alternative energy sources have the potential to be very popular," she said.

Moreover, Italy desperately needs to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases, principally C02 - produced by fossil fuels: while Europe's C02 emissions have fallen 1.7 percent since 1990, Italy's have risen by over 11 percent. The Kyoto protocol - which Italy has signed - commits the country to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 6.5 percent of 1990 levels by 2012 - a target it appears to have little chance of meeting. (continues)

Italy's centre-left government, led by Romano Prodi has committed itself to doubling the proportion of electricity generated from green energy sources during its five-year term to the EU's target of 25 percent by 2011. "There is a clear sea-change compared with the previous [center-right] government," the environment ministry's expert on renewable energy, Carmelo Spitaleri told Adnkronos International (AKI).

The 2007 budget, currently before parliament, contains a number of measures aimed at increasing the use of environmentally-friendly energy sources. These include: tax relief of 55 percent on solar panels up to a maximum of 60,000 euros; funding of small-scale green energy projects (all types of renewables); incentives to consumers who purchase "highly energy-efficient' household appliances (up to 200 euros) and industrial equipment (up to 1,500 euros); and a sustainable development fund worth 25 million euros per year to finance education, training, information and international cooperation.

The budget also contains a 200-million euro 'Kyoto' fund. Over the period 2007-2009 this aims to cut Italy's greenhouse gas emissions by financing projects that include installation of solar panels for water heating and electricity production by private citizens, businesses and public offices; research and development of new low- or zero-emission clean energy technologies; and high-efficiency high electricity and heat generating plants.

Just as important as the budget measures to promote green energy is a forthcoming 'energy account' law which the government says will create a "transparent and generous system of incentives" - modelled on that of Germany - the world leader in green electricity production.

The new law will authorise electricity suppliers to sign 20-year contracts with solar panel owners under which they sell it all the energy they produce at a price that is approximately two and a half times that at which it sells electricity to private consumers. The extra kilowatt hours are then deducted from the solar panel owners' electricity bill.

In terms of solar energy, Italy is virtually at "year zero" according to leading environmental group Legambiente's annual report: just 8 square metres of solar panels per 1,000 inhabitants compared with 34 for the EU-15.

"Wind power is already profitable, and through environmental certification schemes already offers the best return on investment. For this reason, the 2007 budget includes measures to promote solar rather than wind power," Spitaleri's deputy Valerio Angelelli told AKI.

The mix of major renewable power sources - wind, water and sun - is the key to the promised 'greening of Italy' but as Varese Ligure has shown, the other vital ingredient is political will.


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