Giorgia Meloni puts brakes on Italy’s solar energy rollout

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Giorgia Meloni puts brakes on Italy’s solar energy rollout

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Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has always insisted she is not a climate change denier and that her rightwing government is committed to greener sources of energy.

But her coalition is putting the brakes on the rollout of solar panels on farmland, which Meloni has described as a “threat to our food sovereignty” — a claim refuted by some farmers and solar energy experts.

The government last month issued an emergency decree banning ground-mounted solar panels from land zoned for agriculture. Instead, Rome will require more costly installations of at least 2.1 metres above ground, to allow cultivation underneath.

Meloni described the decree as a “pragmatic measure that corrects . . . the ideological eco-follies of which Italy and its farmers have been victims”.

But green power advocates say the restrictions, which must still be approved by parliament, raise serious doubts about Rome’s ability to fulfil its international commitment to reach 80GW of solar capacity by 2030. 

“It’s a paradox: the cheapest energy source right now is solar,” said Paolo Rocco Viscontini, president of Italia Solare, an industry group. “Rather than being happy to say ‘hey, we have the solution. Let’s work together to spread this energy source over the country,’ new problems are created.”

A solar plant in Calabria, southern Italy. Critics say the new curbs threaten Rome’s ability to fulfil its international green energy commitments © Ivan Romano/Getty Images

Renewable energy experts point out that the elevated “agri-voltaic” panels will be 20 to 40 per cent more expensive to install than traditional ones, undermining the sector’s competitiveness. The decree also bars farmers from leasing their land to solar developers and instead requires them to invest directly in the renewable energy projects on their properties.

Patrizio Donati, co-founder and managing director of Rome-based solar power start-up Terrawatt, said: “If we create these conditions that make investment unappealing, we’re not going to be able to do this energy transition in time.”

The latest initiative was championed by agriculture minister Francesco Lollobrigida, Meloni’s brother-in-law, over objections from Italy’s energy minister. It follows a national frenzy whipped up by rightwing television commentators claiming that iconic Italian products — from Prosecco to speciality tomatoes — were threatened by rapacious photovoltaic companies.

Many farmers scoff at such claims, pointing out that not all land zoned for agriculture is viable for crops, particularly in places where there is no irrigation.

In the southern region of Basilicata, 61-year old Emanuele Bocchicchio said that at present he left about half of his land fallow because of increasingly hot weather, drought and rising cultivation costs.

Last year, Bocchicchio agreed to lease out 44 hectares of his unused land to Terrawatt, which plans to build two 10MW solar plants for which he would receive annual rental income of €3,000 per hectare once the project is approved.

“Photovoltaics are a salvation for us — a gift from the heavens,” Bocchicchio said. “We should ask [Lollobrigida] why he has this hatred for solar panels. What obscure mechanism is behind this? It’s inexplicable.”

Farmer Emanuele Bocchicchio standing on his land in Basilicata, southern Italy
Farmer Emanuele Bocchicchio said large parts of his land in Basilicata were unsuitable for cultivation because of drought and increasing temperatures © Amy Kazmin/FT

He also said farmers should be given more leeway to figure out how to use unirrigated land. “No one is obliged to give their land for solar panels — it’s a free choice,” he said. “In marginal areas like this, it’s vital. But there is no freedom here.”    

Though Italy has 16mn hectares of designated farmland, almost a quarter is lying fallow because of poor quality soil, lack of irrigation, fragmented land holdings, labour shortages or lack of interest by urban landowners in investing in agriculture.

“This government has to look at the reality of the farmers: every year the climate conditions are a little bit worse,” said Camillo Rossi, a lawyer who has leased about half of his family’s 200 hectares of unirrigated farmland to a company now generating 50MW of solar power on the site.

An usually hot, dry spring destroyed most of his fledgling crops this year, he said. Renting his land for solar panels was helping to offset these losses. 

“This land is beautiful to see, but it’s poor and, unfortunately, we don’t have the potential to irrigate,” he said. “That’s what determined the choice of solar panels.”

Italia Solare estimates that the country needs just 1 per cent of fallow farmland to fulfil its 2030 solar commitments — but warns the new rules will impede the rollout. “We have such a nice solar power potential but the political class has never been capable of managing it,” said Viscontini.

Italy’s influential agribusiness lobby Coldiretti has hailed the ban and says the government must invest in irrigation rather than allow private developers to use marginal drylands for solar parks.

“We cannot accept the shortcut of photovoltaics,” said Luigi Pio Scordamaglia, Coldiretti’s director of international policies. “We don’t want to accept the inertia of an administration that decided not to invest and improve irrigation. We want to again realise the full productive potential of that land.” 

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