Rome BURNS: Lord of the Wind

Robert Rand, BURN Editor

Here’s a story about some odd bedfellows: wind mills, solar panels, and the Mafia.

First, some background. Renewable energy is a pretty big deal in Italy. The country ranks third among the G20 – the world’s top industrialized nations — with respect to percentage of electricity deriving from green resources. In 2011, 6.2% of Italy’s overall energy use came from solar, wind, geothermal, tidal and wave. The U.S. ranked seventh, at 2.7 percent.

According to Invitalia, the Italian government’s agency for investments and economic development, a favorable climate is responsible for boosting renewables. Italy is blessed with ample sunshine and abundant breezes.

Invitalia has mapped out Italy’s solar and wind hot spots.

Solar irridationWind speed

Ground zero is the island off the toe of Italy’s boot. That’s Sicily, and it has more sun and wind than any other region of the country. According to ENEL, Italy’s largest utility, the world’s first solar plant was built in Sicily in 1981. Sicily now houses more than 8000 solar facilities. And it is home to thirty wind farms.

sicily windmills“When it rains it pours,” goes the cliché. But in Italy, there’s another meteorological maxim, reserved for renewables: Where the sun really shines and the wind really blows, billions of dollars of government funding will follow. That has made solar and wind lucrative businesses, a magnet for the Sicilian mob.

Teresa Maria Principato, a prosecutor with Sicily’s anti-mafia squad, summed up the problem for The Washington Post earlier this year:

The Cosa Nostra is adapting, acquiring more advanced knowledge in new areas like renewable energy that have become more profitable because of government subsidies. It is casting a shadow over our renewables industry.

Here’s how the Mafia manipulates the renewables industry. A solar company trying to tap into those generous government subsidies will invariably bump up against Italy’s most bountiful natural resource — a mountain of bureaucratic red tape.

The mafia provides “facilitators” to speed up the process, and delivers the goods in a way that only the Mafia can. The fees it demands are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per job. (One researcher put it at $520,000 per megawatt.) The mob also forces companies to hire Cosa Nostra contractors and to launder Cosa Nostra cash.

“Sicily is dotted with these giant windmills and solar panels, all doing nothing but laundering mob money,” said Giacomo Di Girolamo, a journalist who writes on organized crime, in The Mirror Online.

A few weeks ago, in early April, the Italian police struck back, seizing more than 1.3 billion Euro (about $1.7 billion) in assets from Vito Nicastri, a Sicilian green energy business magnate believed to be a mafia frontman. Nicastri controls one of the largest wind and solar conglomerates in Italy. His nickname is “Il Signore del Vento” – Lord of the Wind.

ANTIMAFIA SIGN

The confiscated assets include 43 wind and solar energy companies, plus numerous bank accounts, properties, investment funds, credit cards, cars and boats. It is the biggest ever seizure of mafia holdings, and testament to the breadth of Mafia involvement in renewables.

Nicastri is now under surveillance and has been told to stay put his Sicilian home town. If Nicastri is ever arrested, his fingerprints presumably will be taken with green ink.

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Rome BURNS – The Vatican Conclave: Green Smoke Rising

By Robert Rand, BURN Editor

Last October, at a ceremony marking the 500th anniversary of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Pope Benedict XVI, now retired, declared that Michaelangelo’s frescoes exude the “light of God.” He might have added that solar panels now light the Vatican.

The Sistine was the venue this week for a papal conclave to elect Benedict’s successor. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, from Argentina, was selected. The new pope, named Francis I, will be the beneficiary of Benedict’s propensity for solar energy.

Take a look at this shot from Google maps:

Vatican Solar Panels_Google Map

The circular piazza is Saint Peter’s Square. The Sistine Chapel is on the top left, above and to the right of the iconic Dome of St. Peters’ Basilica. A stone’s throw from the Sistene, on the other side of the basilica, is a large, modernistic, quasi-rectangular shaped building. It’s the Paul VI auditorium, where, when the weather is bad, the pope holds weekly audiences with members of the public. The building has a photovoltaic panel roof.

The solar panels – more than 2000 of them — were installed in 2008, with Benedict’s blessing. They produce the energy required to heat, cool and light the building. One of the project’s engineers told the Associated Press that the panels “avoid 200 tons of carbon dioxide” every year. “This is the equivalent to 70 tons of oil.”

Benedict, who assumed the papacy in 2005, has criticized “the unbalanced use of energy” in the world. He once asked Catholics to reduce carbon consumption for Lent. And during his papacy work began on a “Vatican Climate Forest” in Hungary. The idea: plant more than 100,000 trees to absorb as much carbon dioxide as the Holy See emits annually. The objective: make the Vatican a carbon-neutral state.

Benedict has been called a “Green Pope.”  He is the first pontiff to have tooled around St. Peter’s square in an all electric Popemobile, donated to the Vatican last year by Renault.

The vehicle is powered by a lithium ion battery. Benedict previously had expressed interest in a solar powered vehicle.

All of which inspired one writer at The Atlantic to describe Benedict’s papacy as the embodiment of “The Father, The Sun, and the Holy Spirit.”

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