Wind turbine refusniks in Italy get blunt message

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Roberto Cingolani has a clear message for Italians opposed to new wind turbines or solar parks in their region.

“The alternative is to get rid of your car, no air conditioning, no cell phone, no internet at all,” Italy’s energy transition minister told FT in an interview. “Citizens need to understand this. “

Cingolani, a physicist and scholar, was appointed this year by Mario Draghi, the Prime Minister, to lead a new campaign to cut Italy’s carbon emissions. He is responsible for spending around a third of Italy’s € 200 billion share in the EU’s € 800 billion pandemic stimulus fund.

Italy is the main beneficiary of the fund. The money gives Rome, under Draghi’s leadership, a unique opportunity to restart its economy after two decades of stagnation, with the green transition at the heart of its stimulus fund plans.

Cingolani has set a target of producing at least 70% of electricity from renewables by 2030, a big step forward from the 55% commitment Rome formally made with the EU. . The current level is 34 percent.

In recent years, Italy’s transition to renewable energy has stalled. Between 2015 and 2020, only 2 gigawatts of wind capacity and 3 GW of solar were brought online, out of a total installed capacity of 116 GW, according to analysts at Ember, a campaign group.

Renewable energies only represent 17% of Italy’s total energy mix, making it dependent on expensive natural gas, 95% of which is imported. “Our energy mix is ​​very poor,” Cingolani said.

The country has been hit hard by recent gas price hikes. The government has already allocated 3 billion euros to help poorer households and small businesses pay their bills and is preparing a new aid package next year.

Italy was expected to triple its wind and solar generation capacity by 2030, Cingolani said. “There is no plan B.”

The target is likely to be overstated given Italy’s notorious bureaucracy and frequent political resistance to new infrastructure projects. The minister said 3 GW of renewable energy projects are currently on hold due to objections over the impact on the landscape and heritage.

Wind turbines in Collarmele, Italy. Some 3 GW of renewable energy projects in the country are currently blocked due to objections regarding the impact on the landscape and heritage © Alessandra Tarantino / AP

Streamlining lengthy administrative procedures to unlock growth is one of the main goals of Italy’s recovery plan in the event of a pandemic.

Cingolani said that since Draghi took office as head of a national unity government in February, following the collapse of the old administration, Italy has implemented a “very powerful simplification” rules and procedures for authorizing new projects. Authorities have estimated that the time required to obtain a permit for an infrastructure project could be reduced from 1,200 to 270 days, “which is best in class,” he said.

The central government also adopted new “proxy powers”, allowing it to override regional and local authorities and other bodies in the event of prolonged delays in approving infrastructure projects.

Cingolani said the EU stimulus fund – with € 27 billion allocated to decarbonising power generation and industry – would only go part of the way towards the goal of the EU net zero carbon emissions by 2050. rocket that must go from Earth to Mars. The challenge is in five years, the money will end, ”he said.

Although Italy phased out nuclear power production following a referendum in 1987, it should consider bringing it back, Cingolani said. It was “too late” to use nuclear power to help meet the 2030 renewable energy targets, as the sector now lacked investment and expertise, he said. But he argued that by 2050 the demand for clean electricity would be five times what Italy hoped to generate in 2030 and that all technologies, including small modular reactors, should therefore be considered. .

“I’m not a fan of nuclear power, I’m a fan of innovation,” said Cingolani, who joined the government of defense company Leonardo, where he was chief technology officer.

Previously scientific director of the Italian Institute of Technology, he described himself as a “technical minister. . . I am not very political.

When asked if it would be possible to take the public with him on the massive expansion of renewable energy, he was frank: “Like elsewhere, the answer is no.

However, it was important “not to do energy ideology,” he said. Governments had to be “very reasonable”, especially when it came to raising the price of carbon.

Rome has previously expressed doubts about EU plans to extend the emissions trading system to housing and transport, which would increase consumers’ energy bills. He said he wanted to understand the economic impact on households before giving his blessing.

“We want to do good things, but in the meantime there are social issues,” Cingolani said. “Sustainability is a compromise. “

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