A quintessential Italian town of 2,700 people in Italy’s poor mountainous center, with its well-maintained church and ruined castle, Tocco is in most ways stuck in yesteryear. Old men talking politics fill gritty bars, and old women wander through the market. The olive harvest is the most important event on the calendar.
Yet, from an energy perspective, Tocco is very much tomorrow. In addition to the town’s wind turbines, solar panels generate electricity at its ancient cemetery and sports complex, as well as at a growing number of private residences.
“Normally when you think about energy you think about big plants, but here what’s interesting is that local municipalities have been very active,” said Edoardo Zanchini, in charge of Legambiente’s energy division. “That this can happen in a place like Italy is really impressive.”
Italy is an unlikely backdrop for a renewable revolution. It has been repeatedly criticized by the European Union for failing to follow the bloc’s environmental directives. It is not on track to meet either its European Union-mandated emissions-reduction target or its commitment to get 17 percent of its total power from renewable sources by 2020, experts say.
Currently, only 7 percent of Italy’s power comes from renewable sources.
But the growth of small renewable projects in towns like Tocco — not only in Italy, but also in other countries — highlights the way that shifting energy economics are often more important than national planning in promoting alternative energy.
Tocco was motivated to become an early adapter because Italy already had among the highest electricity rates in Europe, and nearly three times the average in the United States, and it could not cope with the wild fluctuations in fossil fuel prices and supply that prevailed during the past decade.
At the same time, the costs of renewable energy have been falling rapidly. And as in much of Europe, the lure of alternative power here was sweetened by feed-in tariffs — government guarantees to buy renewable electricity at an attractive set price from any company, city or household that produces it.
In the United States, where electricity is cheap and government policy has favored setting minimum standards for the percentage of energy produced from renewable sources rather than direct economic incentives like Europe’s feed-in tariffs, stimulating alternative energy has been only mildly successful. But in countries where energy from fossil fuels is naturally expensive — or rendered so because of a carbon tax — and there is money to be made, renewable energy quickly starts to flow, even in unlikely places like Tocco.
With its four wind turbines (two completed in 2007 and two last year), Tocco is now essentially energy independent from a financial standpoint, generating 30 percent more electricity than it uses. Production of green electricity earned the town 170,000 euros, or more than $200,000, last year. The town is renovating the school for earthquake protection and has tripled the budget for street cleaners.
Kieran McNamara, Italy desk officer for the International Energy Agency, said that although small renewable energy projects were not enough to sustain an entire industrial economy like Italy’s, they were important.
“These small projects have their own intrinsic value and make a very, very positive contribution in countries where electricity prices are high,” Mr. McNamara said.