In May 2013 one of Italy’s leading newspapers, La Repubblica, published an article entitled “Nimby effect on renewable energy – Italy allergic to biomass electrical generation.” Living in an agricultural area where green energy subsidies have boosted the production of biomass power stations over the past few years, I couldn’t help laughing at a similar condemnation of protests against the economical power games that lie behind green economy policies, and in which I have gotten increasingly involved over the past year. Yes, many of the people involved in the numerous bottom-up committees are worried about what is going on in their back yard, but perhaps that’s also because local politics have no interest whatsoever in defending those back yards. Moreover, a sound collaboration among various committees and associations that operate both locally and on a regional and national level prove that this is more than a group of residents concerned about their neighborhood. So it’s not all that simple. Hiding behind the ever so popular green economy business, in these times of crisis, it is easy to put off any criticism of biomass electrical generation as plain nimbyism. Yet the threat is real.
Other than the discomfort for residents, i.e. the stench and the frequency of heavy vehicles passing continuously (and often without considering speed limits) on the narrow country side roads to transport corn, grain and grass to the power plants, there are a number of very serious risks, problems and ethical issues involved.
Health: experts have demonstrated that these plants produce noxious gas that may cause cancer and birth defects. Medics, university professors and scientists have sound the alarm on more than one occasion, participating in counter-informative events and protest demonstrations, but local governors – with some minor exceptions – and media have remained indifferent to their criticism.
Profit: the presence of a relatively high number of power plants in small areas, producing energy not for the purpose of disposing biological waste in return for energy but for the sole purpose of gaining subsidies, is highly problematic. For one, what to do with all the energy that is being produced? With the companies being privately owned, the energy is not being invested in the community. It is sold at a much higher rate than “ordinary” energy, whereas the subsidies are at the citizen’s expense.
Farmland: to be able to feed the anaerobic digesters of such an excessive number of power plants, farmers are being “encouraged” to one-crop farming, which is eventually harmful for the farmland. In fact, for a few years now a large part of the farmland in my area is used to grow corn, which is harvested when it is still green and grinded. A potential disaster for the local food industry!
Ethics: this also brings along the ethical problem of harvesting crops not to feed people but simply to burn them, without using the energy that is being produced.
So these are the main problems in a nutshell. Anyone who has been attending meetings and protests over the past few years knows this. Yet, local governors ignore the problems or downplay them. They treat citizens as nimbies, or pretend not to have any say in the matter, which is untrue. Currently we are collectively struggling against a project to build a renewable energy park with no less than four power plants, only a few miles from my town, adding to the existing four to five power plants already in function or under construction, not to mention a landfill and an incinerator nearby. Is one power plant not more than enough? But the mayor of San Pietro in Casale, a town nearby which is granting one authorization to build power plants after another, yet always on the border with adjacent communes, is indifferent to the citizens’ concerns. Undoubtedly he has business interests in green economy, and the anaerobic digesters are only a part of his master plan. Thus, he has completed the construction of a long-awaited swimming pool, in an attempt also to boost his popularity, no doubt. In doing so he has had over 40 poplar trees nearby the swimming pool and adjacent sport centre cut down: they were accused of casting shadows on the solar panels located on the roof of the sport centre. Is this, then, green economy?
The problem is universal, though. A brief article in a British current affairs journal caught my eye during a recent trip to the UK: it speaks of both solar energy and green energy subsidies for biomass electrical generation threatening UK food production. Protests occur in other European countries as well as in the States and in Canada. Going against the grain of green economy is very difficult, because green economy is necessary. We cannot continue exploiting the earth without considering alternative sources of energy, especially in countries which have important natural resources, such as wind, water and sun. If only we could find a way of keeping out profiteers, greedy politicians and the mafia.