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From European directives to reality: the missing courage and willpower

We have all the technologies and knowledge required, we know that they guarantee economic savings and a better quality of life at costs in line with traditional technologies. We can become independent from humoral foreign governments and dictators who are disrespectful of human rights and at the same time minimize emissions of greenhouse gases. Yes, we know all of that, yet the energy revolution seems to be far away. Why? 

Basically, the real reason why all of this did not happen yet is because not so many strongly believed in this revolution and the attempts made to go in this direction, even when financially supported, were sporadic and not coordinated, while the energy revolution required a coordinated and integrated intervention that would allow a slow evolution and not a sudden leap forward. 


The measures implemented by the current government to face expensive energy leave a bad taste in the mouth: these are spot interventions with high costs that do not solve the problem. Even the decision to double national gas production does not change the terms of the problem at all, leaving us at the mercy of supplies from abroad. On the other hand, an integrated policy of production from renewable sources would be wiser, including biogas or biomethane produced using urban cellulosic waste, waste from livestock or agri-food production, purification sludge, with plants calibrated on local production as it has been the case for decades in other European contexts (read: - / biogas). 


The attack on the “Superbonus” is a story already seen with photovoltaic financing. Complex measures that are an ordeal for the honest citizen, but that open the way to speculation and illegalities. Years ago, the photovoltaic incentive system was destroyed, saying that it only served to foment land grabbing and speculative interventions. However, if you looked at the data, you could see that most of the installations financed were small: it would have been enough to adjust the provision, preventing speculative uses but directing the provision towards families and companies that wanted to become themselves energy autonomous. Instead, the end of the measures was speeded up, with significant repercussions also for companies in the sector. Today we are running the same risk, with thousands of families who are still waiting to know whether or not they will be able to access the Superbonus and make their homes more efficient, simply because the building permits Offices of the municipalities are unable to respond quickly to the request.  


The energy turning point in Italy has always been full of paradoxes: just think that the public opinion waged for years against photovoltaic panels as disfiguring the landscape. An attack that was not made against solar thermal panels with a boiler installed on the roof. While for the former, strict rules of landscape compatibility were valid, for the latter - considered maintenance of the plumbing system already present in the house - a simple declaration of the start of work was enough. Since 2017, the legislation has changed, removing this obstacle and in recent days - following the emergency due to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict - there has been an equalization of the two technologies, except for buildings or areas of particular value. But even in these situations, today there are many technologies that allow the installation of photovoltaics with systems, even on the façade, which are well-performing and integrated from an architectural point of view (on this, take a walk in via Cesare Battisti in Cagliari and observe the area building where for about 7 years there has been a photovoltaic system on the facade with modules of different colors). 

The landscape must be protected but consistency is needed and above all a rethinking of energy production is needed, as opposed to the traditional one of large decentralized plants from the places of consumption. Therefore, the intention of a large investment plan to equip public buildings with photovoltaic systems is welcome. It is a first step, but it is not enough. 


What has been lacking to date is a clear will and the courage of politics to direct the economy towards a low-carbon system with decentralized production and an articulated and coordinated support strategy. The recent provision (introduced in the Milleproroghe Decree 162/2019) on energy communities goes in the right direction, but it comes decades behind the similar experiences made in Northern European countries (often aided by Italian technologies and experts). An energy community is an association between citizens, businesses, local authorities or businesses that have facilities for the production and self-consumption of energy from renewable sources and for their storage. This is an important measure that paves the way for distributed generation and the spread of smart grid systems that make it possible to efficiently manage production peaks of some installations and direct it where there is a deficit. In a real energy community, mobility systems are used to manage the accumulation of energy with the use of electric vehicles. In a fully efficient system, heat is also reused, the great forgotten by energy efficiency policies: using the heat emitted in certain productions to produce other forms of energy would reduce the energy costs of many companies, while now heat is often wasted. 

In Italy there are several examples of energetically independent communities: in Sardinia, Benetutti and Borutta were forerunners with a process that began several years ago, thanks also to the adhesion to the community initiative of the Union of Municipalities and to the specific support policies implemented from the Sardinia Region. More recently, Villanovaforru and Ussaramanna have created energy communities, with investments in renewable energies, without speculation or land use. In Italy, there are also numerous examples of smart grids, financed by various public tenders: what is needed is to move from pilot or very small projects to an integrated process that will reform the entire sector. 

This process of progressive distributed generation with the development of renewables, compatible with the protection of the landscape, must be supported not only with increasingly clear and accessible legislation, and with economic contributions to allow families to achieve energy efficiency but also with a support for university and industrial research to allow the resolution of still existing criticalities, such as those related to the disposal and recovery of storage batteries and the materials which they are made of, or to the development of hydrogen in which some nations are investing heavily. On the other hand, support is needed for businesses, on the one hand because they invest in efficiency, distributed generation and smart grids, especially in industrial areas and districts, making the plants state-of-the-art and increasingly performing thanks to energy savings and on the other hand because the development of a national industrial sector able to supply materials, technologies and innovation, and not only to use those coming from abroad. 

In the field of sustainable mobility, investments in ecological vehicles that use energy created by the transformation of city waste or photovoltaic systems built on city plants and buildings would be needed (think of the immense spaces occupied by uncovered parking lots which are immense islands of heat that could be transformed in car parks covered by photovoltaic panels) and a plan for the diffusion of public charging stations for electric vehicles also recharged by isolated or integrated photovoltaic solar panels. To tell the truth, there are numerous plans that go in this direction: what seems to be inadequate is the execution of these plans. 

In this sense, a serious and quick adaptation of skills is needed, making energy efficiency, distributed renewable generation and green building the norm and not the exception. Too often, even today, those who want to invest in this sense have difficulty in finding professionals to support them, yet, according to the European Directive 31/2012 and the European Regulation 244/2012, starting from 2021 all new homes must be passive. 


These articles were written before Russian-Ukrainian tensions escalated into armed conflict. The situation changes very quickly and it is possible that this article may be out of date in some text passages. Please understand the general meaning of the article. Community and national attempts to replace Russian gas and oil with gas and oil from other foreign countries is only a spot solution, until a new crisis comes to challenge the political and diplomatic scenario. Changing country or raw material or technology to depend on does not secure us from energy supply problems as long as we have to turn to countries whose rulers are democratically elected and where the most basic rights of freedom and expression are not guaranteed. We are well aware that globalization and world trade are based on logics that have little to do with human rights and that this discourse should be extended to many countries in the world and to almost all the products we buy every day. This awareness, however, must not prevent us from underlining the incongruities of everyday life even when it is the extraordinary that makes us open our eyes. 


Read previous article on Energy efficiency and renewables 


Vania Statzu

MEDSEA Environmental Economist  MEDSEA