ROME BURNS: Elezioni 2013 – Italy’s PM Candidates on Energy

Robert Rand, BURN Editor

Former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi

Former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi

It’s election day in Italy and, for those of you who aren’t paying attention, the leading candidates for prime minister are an alleged philanderer, a former communist, a professor, and a comedian. O Dio mio.

Much of this unabashedly entertaining campaign is focused on two issues – Italy’s response to the European economic crisis, and whether former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (the alleged philanderer) will return to office. Energy is pretty much off the radar screens, but that doesn’t mean the candidates don’t have an interest. And whoever wins the election (voting is today and tomorrow) will take over a country that imports about 80 percent of its energy needs. In Italy, as elsewhere, energy really matters.

For a foreigner, Italian politics are difficult to parse even on the brightest of sunny days, so I asked an Italian energy expert, Laura Parmigiani, to help me poke around the candidates’ platforms. Here’s what I found especially interesting about each politician’s views on energy:

Berlusconi (also known as Il Cavaliere, “The Knight”) is an unapologetic advocate of nuclear power. Italy had abandoned nuclear energy after the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

Pier Luigi Bersani

Pier Luigi Bersani

But Berlusconi, after assuming his third prime ministership in 2008, wanted to change course. In the face of rising oil prices and greenhouse gases, his government planned to build new nuclear plants. A post-Fukushima referendum cut that short. 94 percent of voters gestured emphatically with their hands and screamed: Forget it.

Italy “probably will have to bid farewell” to nuclear power, Berlusconi said. He’s not likely to change that assessment if he becomes prime minister a fourth time. But had it not been for Fukushima, this year’s election might have been, in part, a vote on whether Italy should again embrace the atom.

Pier Luigi Bersani is a former communist turned free marketeer. As a cabinet minister in a previous government, he went after the country’s energy monopolies, advocating competition in the electricity and gas markets.

Mario Monti

Mario Monti

If he becomes prime minister, Bersani  says that natural gas will be at the center of his energy policy.

Approximately 40 percent of Italy’s energy  consumption comes from natural gas, and nearly all of it (91%) is imported, much via pipeline from Russia. “We have to see how we can manage to reduce the costs of importing,” Bersani said.

The professor is Mario Monti, a silver-haired economist who headed Italy’s caretaker government after Berlusconi, overwhelmed by scandal and the Euro-debt crisis, resigned in November, 2011. Monti has proposed a national debate – the first ever – on energy strategy.

And remember all those natural gas imports? Monti wants to reduce dependence on Russia by building a pipeline that would send gas directly to Italy from Azerbaijan.

Beppe Grillo

Beppe Grillo

The comedian is Beppe Grillo. He is a TV personality with a barbed, populist tongue: a sort of Ralph Nader with a sense of humor. He bears an uncanny resemblance to Mark Twain.

His political rallies are high energy and very engaging. Grillo is the greenest of the candidates, with negative views on coal and a strong focus on renewables and energy efficiency.

Here’s more about Italy’s election:

Angry and Disillusioned, Italians Prepare to Vote

Italy’s anti-politician on the verge of election sensation

Thanks to Laura Parmigiani, with the Center for Energy at the Institut français des relations internationals in Brussels.

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LISTEN || Japan’s lesson for U.S. reactors: Disaster is possible

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A new turbine is installed at the Dresden nuclear plant in Morris, IL. Photo Courtesy Exelon Corp.

The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan almost two years ago caused flooding, power failures, and meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Since then, nuclear regulators have been concerned about 31 reactors in the US – because they are built like Fukushima’s.

Observers have been proposing new safety measures – including venting systems that will release hydrogen and prevent reactor explosions – to help stabilize the plants in the event of natural disasters.

The US nuclear industry has been resisting the expensive changes, especially since the chances of a disaster that would require some of the new equipment are so small.

BURN Host Alex Chadwick visited the Dresden nuclear plant, about an hour southwest of Chicago, and spoke with regulators and industry officials about on-going efforts to make nuclear energy in the US safer. LISTEN

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MAP: US Nuclear Reactors Built Like Fukushima

There are 31 General Electric-built Mk I and Mk II boiling water reactor units across the US – the same kinds that failed in Fukushima.

Since the Japanese crisis nearly two years ago, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has become acutely concerned about the safety of these US reactors in the event of a natural disaster.

View GE Mk I & Mk II Reactors in the US in a larger map

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LISTEN || Fukushima Lessons: Trust Success

When Japan’s Fukushima power plant disaster happened, Charles Casto – a Nuclear Regulatory Commission engineer – went to help. It was a massive task. The 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that struck nearly two years ago caused the nuclear facility to flood. Power was knocked out, cooling systems failed, and there were several partial meltdowns. Major radiation concerns persist in the region.

Casto stayed for almost a year, using his three decades of experience to assess what went wrong, and what the Japanese did right.

Casto remembers seeing the pressure nuclear plant officials were under at the time. Everyone wanted answers – international media, governments, and the nuclear industry. And of course, the Japanese themselves. They were very, very scared.

Meanwhile, inside the plant – in the midst of a huge disaster – Casto says he picked up a valuable lesson as a leader during a crisis. Because, as broken as things were, he could see systems working, and problems being solved. Slowly, but it was happening. Here, he talks about what Fukushima taught him.

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Rome BURNS: Counting Kilowatts on an Italian Power Diet

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The fuse box in Rob Rand’s Roman home. Photo: Robert Rand


By Robert Rand, BURN Editor

Living in Rome is nice. No doubt about it. All those wonderful stereotypes – the food, the wine, the ruins, the beautiful people, the coffee – they’re pretty much true. These delights have a purpose beyond pure hedonism. They tend to offset Rome’s less palatable side: the inefficiencies, the bureaucracies, the dirtiness, the traffic chaos. And, for the energy sensitive, the exasperating manner in which Roman apartments burn electricity.

Italians depend on electricity just as Americans do, and they pay a much higher price for it – on average, almost twice as much. But if the high electric bills here don’t provide enough incentive to conserve energy, there’s something else: a built-in ceiling for electricity consumption.

Most Italian homes – mine included – run on 3 kilowatts of electricity. If the limit is exceeded – if your electrical system carries more current than it is designed to handle – POP go the lights, and everything else.

This is not something I generally worried about before moving from the US to Rome. The typical American residence has a maximum power capacity of twenty to fifty kilowatts. In the US – in my experience, at least – blowing a fuse was something my exasperated father did. Or it was a summertime affair, when overwrought air conditioners sucked up all available electric power.

Here in Rome you don’t need an air conditioner to blow a fuse. In my apartment, the simultaneous use of a dishwasher and oven will do it. The washing machine and electric water kettle also make for a lethal combination. When my son turns on his power-sucking PS3, we all have to walk tippy toe, lest an errant appliance start up throw us over the 3kw threshold.

Flipping a switch in our central circuit panel always restores the power. We keep flashlights within arm’s reach to illuminate a path to the fuse box when the lights snap off.

We could increase our power capacity by paying the electric company more money, but we prefer to economize. As one consumer put it to a disgruntled expat, “Are you truly so disorganized that you can’t arrange your life so that the cooker is never on at the same time as the dishwasher? It is really incredibly simple, if finances are a problem, to live with minuscule supply and sensible power management.”

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Not So Fast: It Takes a Village to Make a Hot Rod

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Bob Libow runs Elco Welding – a West LA temple of metal work and machines. He custom built many of the parts essential to Mike Pethel’s green car. Photo: Hugh Hamilton


By Alex Chadwick

If you heard or saw our Marketplace story from last week – the one about an old BMW transformed into a very fast green car by Mike Pethel – I have a confession. I got it wrong.

Mike had the lead on this, yes, but no one takes on a project like this alone. Much of the work was done at Elco Welding on Abbott Kinney Boulevard in Venice, California, under the guidance of Elco’s Bob Libow. Bob is an artist with fire and metal – I think he could make anything. And Elco is a kind of shrine to machines and tools, and what they can do. If you’re remaking a car as radically as this one is changed, you’ll need someone who can craft all sorts of adjustments and supports and fittings. Bob can do anything, and he does it with generosity. I should have acknowledged Bob’s contribution.

And about those amazing motors: they are built to design standards that Mike suggested and evolved with a company called NetGain Motors, in Lockport, Illinois. George is a ‘retired’ engineer and computer hacker who owns and runs a company that makes electric motors. His products are popular among the devotees of the sub-culture that transforms gas cars to electrics. He and Mike have worked and consulted with each other for years, and George deserves a lot of credit, both for making the motors and for listening to Mike’s ideas and being willing to try them.

Okay. Now maybe I can drop by Elco again and see what Bob’s making this week.

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