TCS Daily

Italy's Greenouts

By Dominic Standish - September 16, 2003 12:00 AM

This June's blackouts in Italy may not have been as newsworthy as those in the US and the UK, but they were just as serious for those Italians stuck in lifts and dark Alpine road tunnels. What difference switching off traffic lights made to Italian drivers is open to debate.


The more serious debate was over what had caused the first national power cuts for 21 years. Italy's largest power company, ENEL, had warned that the heat wave had led to a surge in electricity demand with more use of air conditioning and fans. Drought had also reduced the output of hydroelectric power plants.


The government reacted by announcing plans to build new electricity plants to boost production. As a short-term response to the threat of further shortages, the government also discussed a decree to authorise the power utilities to exceed limits on waste emissions. This would increase legal air emission caps for limited periods. Temperature limits for discharging water into rivers could also be raised, allowing power plants to boost capacity for peak consumption times.


Italy's leading environmental group, Legambiente, denounced the emissions decree as "myopic", adding that this could increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But the environmental movement should examine its own role in creating the power crisis that led to the possibility of such measures in the first place.


Although the heat and the resulting increase in electricity demand were factors in the power blackouts, the immediate cause was the blocking of electricity imports from France. Italy normally imports 2,650 megawatts from France every day. The day before the most serious blackout on 26 June, the national grid operator, GRTN, was told that imports from France would be cut by 800 megawatts.


Italy cannot meet its electricity needs so it imports several thousand megawatts of electricity from other countries daily. Italy's electricity balance, measured as production minus consumption, is one of the worst in Western and Eastern Europe. Why is it that Europe's fourth-largest economy cannot generate enough electric power to come close to meeting domestic demand?


The difficulty is not one of natural resources, as Italy makes a large proportion of its electricity using natural gas. The problem started when Italy abandoned plans to build new power stations and banned nuclear power in 1987. Italy's Green Party and environmental movement grew during the 1980s by campaigning against nuclear power. Their efforts culminated in victories in three referenda on nuclear energy in November 1987, one year after the Chernobyl disaster.


The failure to embrace nuclear energy left Italy dependent on countries such as France, which developed highly productive electricity generation with nuclear power. It is this dependence that makes Italy open to breakdowns in import supplies that led to June's blackouts.


Plans to increase electricity production by building new power plants should be welcomed to reduce Italy's dependence on imports and meet increases in domestic demand. Instead, Ermete Realacci, the president of Legambiente, said: "In this chaotic situation after the days of scheduled blackouts why is the government only talking about building new power plants instead of looking at renewable energy sources and ways of saving energy?"


However, the real problem is that past Italian governments and the current center-right government have already adopted these environmental demands. Realacci's agenda on the emergency blackouts was accepted when he presented it to the Lower House of Parliament. On 25 July, the government's Cabinet approved a legislative decree aimed at increasing incentives for renewable sources of electricity production, which in 2002 made up 1.25 percent of national production.


This decree includes a European Union 2001 directive and the issuing of "green certificates" for companies that produce electricity while meeting environmentally friendly criteria. The stated aim is a green electricity market that is obliged to meet minimum production needs. But surely production should be maximized to meet demand and cut imports.


Indeed, the Minister of Productive Activities, Antonio Marzano, declared to a Senate hearing on 22 July that the government has invested in renewable energy sources, but these will not make up for increasing demand. Marzano promised the Senate that the government would start a campaign against "bad energy habits" of wasteful electricity consumption.


Environmentalists are opposing the responses to the electricity crisis using the smokescreen of the dangers created by greenhouse gases. Why don't they support electricity generation using nuclear energy that produces no carbon dioxide?


But the environmental agenda is only damaging because governments and bodies like the EU have embraced it. This adoption of "green" policies focusing on limiting production and consumption is causing blackouts and hindering our development.


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