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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Wind Science, Energy, and Growing Prevalence

Wind is the kinetic energy of molecules in the air. Wind has powered ships and mills for centuries or longer.

Modern windmills convert the wind into rotational energy by allowing the air molecules to bombard the blades, turning them. The blades are connected to turbines, which generate electricity from that rotational energy.

Wind energy is one of the cleanest forms of energy available because it doesn’t require a fuel or produce greenhouse gas or other bi-products, outside of those from production and maintenance of equipment and transmission.

Wind turbines themselves take up only a small area compared to their generating potential, making it possible to install them on agricultural, forest, or grazing lands.

RAPID GROWTH

In just ten years, wind power in the United States grew more than ten-fold, from just over 2,000 megawatts in 1999 to more than 34,000 megawatts in 2009, when wind accounted for 9 percent of renewable energy produced in the country and more than geothermal and solar combined.

Here’s an animated map of wind development from 2000 to 2010.

Texas, Iowa, and Minnesota had the greatest wind capacity in 2010. Additionally, at least 27 other states used wind to generate electricity that year.

DRAWBACKS TO WIND ENERGY

Wind is an intermittent resource, meaning that the windmills can’t continuously and predictably produce energy. They only work when the wind blows, and they can only work as hard as the wind is blowing at that time.

Research is ongoing into predicting what regions of the country have significant wind resources suitable for wind development, a process that requires computer programming and meteorological knowledge.

Furthermore, public and private researchers are working to produce better models of wind on an hourly, daily, and seasonal basis to make it easier for wind energy producers to forecast their output and sell it ahead of time.

Another major hurdle to wind power is that it is expensive compared with fossil fuel-based electricity. Modern windmills cost a lot to design and build, especially as they have to be strong enough to endure extreme weather, even though they will mostly operate in moderate weather. That makes competing with other energy sources difficult without government intervention.

Some people don’t like the way windmills look, and windmills can also kill bats and birds, though newer designs have slower and less deadly blades. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Ornithology estimated that windmills kill around 440,000 birds every year. However, the same study showed that house cats kill more than 1,000 times that number, as many as 500 billion per year.

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