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ENERGY

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
Agriculture, energy and household water supplies have been hit as Italy’s Po River suffers the worst drought in 70 years. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

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.

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ENERGY

Lights out: How Christmas in Italy will be different this year

As the European energy crisis continues, some cities in Italy have chosen to save on electricity by downsizing regular Christmas displays, thus making this year’s festivities a little less flashy.

Lights out: How Christmas in Italy will be different this year

With less than a month to go until the Christmas holidays, many might be rejoicing at the prospect of finally seeing their cities lit up by dazzling Christmas displays.

But, as the European energy crisis shows no sign of abating and many cities across the boot keep struggling to square their accounts in the face of soaring bills, some residents may be disappointed to know that this year’s festive decorations might differ from the norm.

Milan, Italy’s economic capital, was one of the very first Italian cities to announce it would significantly reduce Christmas displays to save on energy.

READ ALSO: Lights off and home working: Milan’s new energy-saving plan for winter 

After reports emerged in early October that the city would end up spending a whopping €130 million on energy bills alone in 2022, Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala, was quick to warn residents that Christmas decorations would be “restrained” and operate “for shorter periods of time”.

And, it wasn’t long before Sala made good on his promises. 

Earlier this month, the city’s authorities agreed on putting up decorations and light displays on December 7th (that is over two weeks after the usual date) and taking them down on January 6th instead of late January. 

Christmas lights in the streets of central Milan

Christmas lights in Milan will be switched on on December 7th, that is over two weeks after the usual switch-on date. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Also, while in previous years Milan’s city centre was illuminated overnight, this year’s Christmas lights will be switched on at 4pm and switched off at midnight. 

But, while Milan residents might be slightly dissatisfied with the new arrangements, they sure have little to complain about when compared to Rome residents. 

It’ll be a dark Christmas (literally and, perhaps, even figuratively) for most areas of the Eternal City and not merely because of the current energy crisis. 

READ ALSO: Energy crisis: The Italians reviving ‘nonna’s’ traditions to keep costs down

The city’s tender for this year’s Christmas lights contract received no bids before its deadline on October 27th, which means that, in many neighbourhoods, festive decorations will be largely left to the goodwill and financial means of the residents.

So while the popular Piazza di Spagna, Porta Pia and Via Alessandria will light up over the holiday season thanks to private funding, the San Giovanni and Tuscolano neighbourhoods and Via Cola di Rienzo are currently expected to remain au naturel.

Christmas light in a street in Rome

Many areas of the capital, Rome, will be without lights this year due to lack of funding. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Things will generally be better in Venice and Florence, where local authorities have recently chosen to maintain their usual arrangements, the only exception being the replacement of regular lights with energy-efficient, LED ones. 

So, while the lighting might be a little softer and displays might not be as remarkable as in previous years, both cities should be able to deal with late-December energy bills more comfortably than they would have had to do otherwise.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Italy has avoided a huge hike in gas prices – for now 

Having said that, not all Italian cities have decided to resize their Christmas offerings on the back of eye-watering electricity prices. 

Naples, which has long been known for the extravagance of its Christmas and New Year celebrations, has seemingly chosen to turn a blind eye to the energy crisis and will allocate as much as €1.5 million (that’s €150,000 to each one of the ten local municipalities) to this year’s displays.

Unsurprisingly, the comune’s decision has been drawing widespread criticism, with many local political figures pointing out that part, if not most, of the above-mentioned amount should have been spent elsewhere, perhaps in the form of a one-off ‘Christmas bonus’ for struggling households and businesses.

The available money should have been used to “turn off the crisis and light up people’s hearts”, city councillors Antonio Culiers and Francesco Flores said in a joint statement earlier this month.

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