Italy builds first offshore wind farm amid push for energy independence

Italy is close to completing what is thought to be the first offshore wind farm in the Mediterranean as it tries to free itself from heavy reliance on imported gas.

Italy builds first offshore wind farm amid push for energy independence
Wind turbines under construction at the Taranto offshore wind farm, thought to be the first in the Mediterranean. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

The Beleolico offshore wind turbine park will stretch out from the port in Taranto, a southern city known for its polluting steel plant, down in the heel of Italy’s boot-shaped peninsula.

Italy’s cabinet has also recently approved six new wind farms to be built on land, from Sardinia to Basilicata.

After being held back for years by red tape, wind farms are now getting the go-ahead as Italy looks to renewable energy as the solution to its energy crisis.

READ ALSO: Italy announces plan to end reliance on Russian gas by 2025

Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted European Union countries to pledge to reduce dependency on Russian gas.

Italy was among them – despite being one of the EU’s biggest users and importers of gas. At the moment, gas represents 42 percent of energy consumption in the country – which has no nuclear power, just two operational coal plants, and only 20 percent of its energy needs covered by renewables.

Italy imports 95 percent of the gas it uses, and 45 percent of this currently comes from Russia.

The Italian government last week pledged to stop using Russian gas by 2025, with its short-term strategy focused on increasing gas supplies from other countries as well as returning to domestic production.

But an “accelerated investment in renewables… remains the only key strategy in the long term,” Prime Minister Mario Draghi told parliament.

Once complete, the Beleolico wind farm off Taranto will have 10 bottom-fixed, red and white-bladed turbines, capable of powering 21,000 homes.

Renexia, the company behind it, says it also has plans for a vast floating wind farm with 190 turbines off the island of Sicily, which would produce energy for 3.4 million families and create hundreds of jobs.

Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Italy’s Ministry for the Ecological Transition  has received 64 expressions of interest for floating offshore wind farms — but the number of projects held up by bureaucracy is “staggering”, WindEurope said. Beleolico, which Renexia hopes will be operational by May, has been 14 years in the making.

Greenpeace Italy head Giuseppe Onufrio slammed the delays as “absurd”.

“Some (farms) are authorised after six, seven years, and the technology changes year by year and so the risk is that plants are authorised despite being outdated.”

Draghi insists the government “is working to streamline procedures, cut red tape and speed up investments”.

But Davide Tabarelli, economics professor and head of energy think tank Nomisma Energia, told AFP he was “amazed and stupefied” to see Draghi describe renewables as the “only key strategy”.

Beleolico “is constantly being thrown around as the immediate solution to the energy crisis, and the fact that we can do without gas, especially Russian gas”, he said.

But there are several “serious problems”, he said, not least the difficulties storing wind energy, for suitable batteries do not exist, leading to waste.

Rome’s vow that it is readying to cut the use of Russian gas is remarkable, he added, “as if, after 30 years of promises on renewables, the problem could be solved in the space of a few weeks”.

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Drought hits Italy’s hydroelectric plants amid energy crisis

Hydroelectric power production in Italy has plunged this year thanks to a severe drought that has also sparked water restrictions and fears for agriculture, industry sources said on Friday.

Drought hits Italy's hydroelectric plants amid energy crisis

Hydropower facilities, mostly located in the mountains in the country’s north, usually cover almost one fifth of Italy’s energy demands.

But the ongoing lack of rain is causing problems at a time when Rome is desperately trying to wean itself off its dependence on Russian gas due to the war in Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Italy’s heatwave to last another week and get even hotter, say forecasts

“From January to May 2022, hydro production fell by about 40 percent compared to the corresponding period in 2021,” a spokesman for Utilitalia, a federation of water companies, told AFP.

“Hydro production has been steadily decreasing since July 2021,” he said, blaming “the severe shortage of water even at high levels”.

An industry source told AFP that while the situation was constantly changing, estimates for the first six months of 2022 suggest nationwide hydroelectric generation will be almost half the equivalent period of 2021.

One small plant near Piacenza, southeast of Milan, was shut indefinitely on June 21st due to low levels on the River Po that feeds it, the Enel energy company said.

READ ALSO: How long will it take Italy to wean itself off Russian gas?

“Considering the current drought situation, other hydro plants are not operating at full capacity,” a spokesman added, without giving further details.

The Po River, which stretches across the north of the country, is Italy’s largest reservoir of fresh water. Much of it used by farmers, but the area is suffering its worst drought for 70 years.

Italy’s largest agricultural association, Coldiretti, said the drought is putting over 30 percent of national agricultural production and half of livestock farming in the Po Valley at risk.

Local authorities say the situation in the area has been “extremely delicate” since last week, with four regions asking the national government to declare a state of emergency and hundreds of towns now rationing water.

In the northwest region of Piedmont, water is being rationed in more than 200 municipalities according to the ANSA news agency.

Drought in Italy: What water use restrictions are in place and where?

The Maggiore and Garda lakes are both far lower than usual for this time of year, while further south, the level of the Arno, Aniene and Tiber rivers have also dropped.

Arid conditions are set to worsen as the heatwave currently gripping Italy is expected to last until the end of June, with temperatures around the country of “up to 40°C in the shade” forecast early next week.

In Milan and Turin, a massive increase in electricity usage for cooling day and night has pushed the electricity grid beyond its limits over the past week, leading to blackouts.

With many parts of Europe experiencing unusually high temperatures for this time of year, experts have repeatedly warned that longer, earlier heatwaves are a consequence of global heating.

“As a result of climate change, heatwaves are starting earlier,” said Clare Nullis, a spokeswoman for the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva.

“What we’re witnessing today is unfortunately a foretaste of the future” if concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise and push temperatures towards 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, she added.