Seen from Berlin, the Sicilian location is ideal. The power of the southern Italian sun has drawn German solar system maker Ib Vogt to Centuripe, the interior of the Mediterranean island rich in natural and cultural treasures. Last December, the planning company filed an application for the construction of a photovoltaic power plant with 384 megawatts of electricity. It is to be built in the valley of the Dittaino river west of Mount Etna. When the 711,360 solar modules are commissioned, it will be the largest project ever implemented by the Berlin developer, which is committed to “decarbonizing the global electricity sector”.
In Centuripe, however, they don’t want to know anything about the Berlin project. Locals don’t care that Ib Vogt invests 228.7 million euros in the economically weak interior of the island. And the fact that the Italian government is currently trying to force the expansion of renewable energies in the planet’s race for climate change leaves Sicilians indifferent.
In aerial photographs, Centuripe looks like a petrified five-armed starfish. On the internet, the community of 5,800, which enjoyed its heyday under the Roman Empire, boasts of its picturesque location. The place rises majestically to a height of 730 meters halfway between Catania and Enna, you can read there. The view stretches across the three surrounding river valleys to the Etna volcano and the Erei and Nebrodi mountain ranges. And soon more than 496 hectares of shiny black silicon wafers? Not here.
The project was blocked last July. The Enna Monuments Protection Authority vetoed the construction of the solar power plant. “Several pebbles were found nearby, which can be attributed to the ancient Paleolithic facies,” the explanation explains. Irritating conclusion: climate protection fails in Sicily due to the Stone Age. The architects of the Cultural Authority also cite “areas with large ceramic fragments” as grounds for rejection. In truth, the reason is different: “From our village, which is known as the balcony of Sicily, one would look at the hills covered with mirrored surfaces”, explains city councilor Giuseppe Biondi.
People are in favor of green technologies – as long as they don’t get too close
The problem with Italy is: Centuripe is everywhere. Beautiful landscapes and valuable cultural assets can be found in every corner. The “Nimby” phenomenon is the decisive obstacle to the energy transition. According to the motto “Not in my backyard”, the inhabitants between Bolzano and Syracuse also advocate green technologies as long as they do not come too close to it. The result: “Today, the authorities are blocking new plants for the climate neutral production of three gigawatts of electricity,” said Environment Minister Roberto Cingolani. Its job is to suppress this resistance.
Open detailed view
Italian Prime Minister Draghi (center) with his Environment Minister Roberto Cingolani (right) at the UN climate summit COP 26 in Glasgow last week.
(Photo: Filippo Attili / imago)
The well-known physicist was appointed to government eight months ago by Mario Draghi as the pilot of the green revolution in Italy. Much is at stake for the country. Italy will receive € 200 billion from the EU’s post-pandemic reconstruction fund for its modernization over the next five years. Of this amount, 69 billion euros are earmarked for environmental investments. 5.9 billion euros are available for renewable energies alone. But as long as no specific project is approved, the money tap remains closed. Italy is faced with the alternative: “Either we give up our bureaucracy or the money from Brussels,” says Cingolani.
The country actually has good maps. Italy has traditionally relied heavily on hydropower and has already led the expansion of solar power in Europe. But then the turnaround stopped. In 2020, 41.7% of the electricity produced came from renewable sources. The elongated Mediterranean peninsula could potentially turn into a clean energy El Dorado. Few clouds, lots of sun and 8,300 kilometers of coastline provide ideal conditions for the expansion of solar and wind power.
The fact that the energy transition is not progressing is largely due to the cumbersome approval process. Eleven different permits are required. If things go well, it will be four years before all agencies have buffered the request. But very often things don’t go well. 70 percent of projects are stopped by the supervisory authorities. Take Lazio, for example: the Ministry of Culture has blocked 126 projects in the region of Rome alone. 2.2 billion euros of investments are blocked there.
There is a big gap between desire and reality. Italy must install 70 gigawatts of new generation capacity by 2030 in order to meet the Paris Climate Agreement target. This means that eight gigawatts must be connected to the grid each year. In 2020, it was 0.8 gigawatt. If the expansion drags on, the sunny country will only reach its target in 2108 – instead of 2030. The Andrea Illy coffee maker does not lose hope, however: “With the climate target, the government is jeopardizing a part of his credibility and he therefore acts quickly. “
Roberto Cingolani has been trying to get Italy out of its blockade since last February. The top researcher and former head of development at tech group Leonardo expects Italy to break with its tradition. For decades, protecting the environment has been equated with the inviolability of nature, and the most effective weapon of local citizen groups is to take action in the courts and authorities. You are referring to the protection of the landscape anchored in the Italian constitution. The fight against the climate crisis is behind schedule.
The conflict of objectives also erupted within the government. At the cabinet table, Cingolani and the Minister of Cultural Goods, Dario Franceschini, who is responsible for the authorities for the protection of monuments and landscapes, constantly put themselves in their hair. Cingolani implemented a simplification of the approval process. “We have reduced its duration from 1,500 to 250 days,” he says. In addition, the power of the brakes has been reduced. “If an authority falls behind, the State intervenes and takes its place”, specifies the minister. The government thus ensured clear rules.
However, the Minister of the Environment knows that this alone will not be enough to meet the challenge. “The country must decide which side it is on,” he demands. The search for climate neutrality cannot be subordinated everywhere to the protection of landscapes. “We can no longer tolerate Nimby syndrome,” explains Cingolani.
The solar developers in Berlin are also counting on this. In the Sicilian interior of the island, Ib Vogt is piloting two other large-scale photovoltaic projects in addition to Centuripe. “Our company is committed to producing sustainable electricity for the Italian grid,” the company said.