TCS Daily

The Italian Job

By Victoria Paracchini - October 7, 2003 12:00 AM

Globalization or marginalization? That is the question. Will Italy finally come to terms with its huge basic infrastructural issues -- such as its power consumption needs -- or just go back to Middle Ages?


Italy had already endured one of the worst summers in its history and power outages were common. But on September 28 it was still caught completely off-guard when its 57 million people were plunged into darkness in the worst blackout in the country's history. In the aftermath of this nationwide power failure Italians are no longer taking electricity for granted.


Summer was unusually warm all over Europe but Italy had it the roughest. By the end of July people could barely sleep at night. During the day their productivity suffered; concentration at work was poor. There was almost no air-conditioning and even for those who had it, power quotas limited their ability to use it. The country lost billions of euro.


It also affected the railway network, which is essential to Italian life. By the beginning of August almost all trains were delayed in some way. Even most high-speed expensive trains like the Eurostar were delayed because they got orders at random to slow down -- wheels and rails had become too hot.


And there were the blackouts. Not just massive ones but personal ones. Most of the power network in Italy is strictly controlled, allowing a level of maximum use per house, apartment, office, etc. If the maximum is exceeded power is automatically cut. This summer was worse than usual: At home you had to choose between turning on the smallest air-conditioner or cooking with the oven, or to cook and iron and turn off the AC or your electricity was cut off by computer.   


It is by now obvious to everyone that Italy doesn't have enough electricity -- and what it does have is expensive. Never mind Energy Minister Antonio Marzano's claims about Italians' allegedly bad energy habits suggesting the country has a wasteful level of energy consumption.


There have been promises made to increase incentives for new sources of electricity like solar and geothermal but these are not going to address the problem. Italy produces only 83 percent of its electricity consumption -- which by EU standards is extraordinarily low -- and imports the rest from France. But France was having power problems of its own this summer and cut its exports. So Italy made arrangements with Switzerland and Slovenia to make up the difference.


Importing electricity is fine if it comes cheap (France has very competitive prices). But reality has proved that this supply is captive. Electricity is unique: you cannot store it and demand varies a lot. So when you buy it you pay for the peak consumption all year round. If you don't use it, it's wasted money. If you happen to need more than usual, demand goes too high and you have a blackout.


To get the most from the investment it is important to operate the system as closely as possible to the wire: Transmission is of the essence. If Italy continues to buy its power from other countries, it will fall victim to its strange shape: a boot surrounded by water. Power must come from very far up north on the other side of the border. And when things go wrong, they can go very wrong as we have just learned.


The victory of the Italian Greens in 3 referendums in a row in 1987 banned nuclear power in Italy, dismantling existing plants and scrapping plans for new ones. At the time the choice appeared to be an easy one: leave the dirty work to others and buy the extra 20 percent needed. 


But the Big Blackout proves dramatically that it's not possible to rely heavily on foreign sources of electricity. Italy has to have its own power sources. Domestic inexpensive production has to be encouraged as well as investment (it will require billions of euro) and deregulation.


Italy has to face reality and consider using nuclear power again, raise emissions limits and build a safe, secure and reliable system.


TCS Daily Archives