Roberto Cingolani has an explicit message for Italians opposed to new wind turbines or solar farms in their local area.
“The alternative is to get rid of your car, no air conditioning, no mobile phone, no internet at all,” Italy’s energy transport minister told the Financial Times in an interview. “Citizens have to understand this.”
Cingolani, a physicist and academic, was appointed this year by Mario Draghi, the prime minister, to lead a renewed campaign to reduce Italy’s carbon emissions. He is responsible for spending about a third of Italy’s €200 billion share of the EU’s €800 billion Epidemic Recovery Fund.
Italy is the largest beneficiary of the fund. The money gives Rome, under Draghi’s leadership, a once-in-a-generation chance to restart its economy after two decades of stagnation, with a green turn central to recovery fund plans.
Cingolani has set a target to produce at least 70 percent of electricity from renewables by 2030, a big step up from the 55 percent commitment Rome formally made with the European Union. The current level is 34 per cent.
In recent years, Italy’s shift to renewable energy sources has stalled. Between 2015 and 2020, only 2 gigawatts of wind and 3 gigawatts of solar power were connected online, out of a total installed capacity of 116 gigawatts, according to analysts at Ember, a campaign group.
Renewable energy accounts for only 17 percent of Italy’s total energy mix, making it dependent on expensive natural gas, 95 percent of which is imported. “Our energy mix is very poor,” Cingolani said.
The country has been hit hard by the recent increases in gas prices. The government has already allocated 3 billion euros to help poor families and small businesses pay their bills, and is preparing for another aid package next year.
Cingolani said Italy needs to triple its wind and solar generation capacity by 2030. “There is no plan B.”
The target is likely to be an extension given the notorious Italian bureaucracy and frequent political resistance to new infrastructure projects. The minister said 3GW of renewable energy projects are currently banned due to objections to their impact on the landscape and heritage.
Streamlining lengthy administrative procedures to unleash growth is one of the main goals of Italy’s plan to recover from the pandemic.
Cingolani said that since Draghi took office at the head of the national unity government in February, after the collapse of the previous administration, Italy had implemented a “very strong simplification” of rules and procedures for delegating new projects. Officials estimated that the time taken to obtain a permit for an infrastructure project could drop from 1,200 to 270 days, “best in class,” he said.
The central government has also adopted new “replacement powers,” allowing it to bypass regional, local and other authorities in the event of prolonged delays in licensing infrastructure projects.
Singolani said the EU Recovery Fund – with €27 billion earmarked for decarbonizing power generation and industry – would only take part of the country on the path towards the EU’s goal of reducing net carbon emissions by 2050. “I see the recovery plan as a booster in The rocket that has to get from Earth to Mars. The challenge in five years, the money will be over.”
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Cingolani said that although Italy phased out nuclear power generation after the 1987 referendum, it should consider bringing it back. It is “too late” to use nuclear power to help achieve 2030 renewable energy goals because the sector now lacks investment and expertise, he said. But he argued that by 2050 the demand for clean electricity will be five times what Italy hopes to generate in 2030, and therefore all technologies, including small reactors, must be considered.
“I’m not a fan of nuclear power, I’m a fan of innovation,” said Cingolani, who joined the government from defense firm Leonardo, where he was CTO.
He was a former scientific director of the Italian Institute of Technology, and described himself as a “technical minister . . . I am not very political”.
When asked if the public could be taken with him about the massive expansion of renewables, he was blunt: “As elsewhere, the answer is no.”
However, he said it was important “not to take ideology out of energy.” Governments have to be “very reasonable”, especially when it comes to raising the price of carbon.
Rome has previously expressed concerns about European Union plans to expand an emissions trading scheme to include housing and transport, which could raise consumers’ energy bills. She said she wanted to understand the economic impact on families before giving her blessing.
“We want to do good things, but at the same time there are social problems,” Singolani said. “Sustainability is a compromise.”
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