July 15, 2005

Italian Village Pins Survival Hopes on Wind Farms

ALBERONA, Italy -- The small, medieval village of Alberona dies after lunch. Only a strong wind sweeps through its empty cobble-stoned streets.

But Mayor Arturo Petti hopes the wind might be just the thing to blow new life into the sleepy southern Italian village.

He wants to build a new wind farm.

"We have discovered our golden resource -- the wind. It's a clean and inexhaustible source of energy, and we're going to take the best advantage of it," said Petti, leafing through projects leading to a better life piled up on his desk.

Alberona perches on the rolling hills that fold out of the Appenine mountains in the Puglia region -- one of the windiest spots in Italy.

More rugged than much-loved Tuscany, the hilltops suddenly sprouted lanky three-armed windmills in the late 1990s as the government offered subsidies as part of a renewable energy push to cut carbon dioxide emissions and stop global warming.

Some decry the metal towers as an eyesore unworthy of a country as beautiful as Italy but for the people of Puglia -- one of its poorest regions with unemployment running at double the national rate of 8 percent -- they are a hope for the future.

The hills around Alberona are already dotted with 60 windmills and Petti wants to host another 60 because the 1.25 million euros ($1.5 million) in royalties from the project would double the village's annual budget.

Government handouts are scarce, so cash from a new wind farm is the only way to create jobs, develop public services and stop people from leaving their birthplace.

"There are no jobs. The young are running away," Petti said.

Only about 1,000 people now live in Alberona, down from 5,000 some 50 years ago. The population could fall to 400 by 2018 as only 40 percent of the villagers now have jobs.

There is no hospital in Alberona and the only bank had to shut earlier this year because it had no business.

The mayor fears that if there is no new investment now, the school will close and trigger an exodus of young people.

"We can't wait," Petti said. "Alberona is on the brink of extinction."


If the new wind farm goes ahead, Petti hopes to scrap local taxes, invest in crumbling roads, infrastructure and public services, offer free school lunches and give families 1,000 euros for every baby they have and any child who goes to school.

But the plan is at risk because Puglia's authorities want to suspend building new wind farms until the region, which already produces more electricity than it needs, creates a general energy program.

"We need a clear plan outlining our energy needs and supplies," said Michele Losappio, the regional official in charge of environmental issues.

"We want to avoid uncontrolled, wild wind farming. Otherwise we'll turn into a pin cushion."

Losappio said Puglia already produced about 227 megawatts of wind power and that projects to build wind farms with a capacity of up to 1,200 MW are at different stages of approval.

But the region, also known as Apulia, does not need that much wind power, he said.

Alberona's planned new turbines would produce 120 MW a year.

Environmental activists said authorities should not waste their time struggling with environmentally-friendly power production but rather fight against pollution from traditional fuel-fired energy plants.

But local opposition to the strangely silent, up to 100-meter turbine towers is growing across Italy, which makes about 1.5-2.0 percent of its power from wind.

The island of Sardinia, another big producer of wind power, blocked all new projects last year, saying the windmills scarred its landscape.

Enel, Italy's biggest utility and a leader in wind power, says that the difficulty in getting permits to develop renewable energy projects in Italy have forced it to turn its eyes to Latin America and Spain.

Elsewhere in the world, people have questioned whether wind power is viable not least because while the turbines generate green energy, they can also disturb the local flora and fauna.

Energy experts say that clean energy output will grow as Italy tries to stick to the Kyoto protocol guidelines aimed at reducing global warming. But they say that wind farms will never significantly curb gas and coal plants.

"Industry needs thousands of megawatts of energy. In order to produce it with wind farms, we would have to stick wind turbines on every roof," Puglia's Losappio said.

But Petti said he would not give up and mayors from 20 nearby, equally poor villages have joined a petition asking regional authorities to drop the idea of the moratorium on new wind farms.

"Of course they are not a pretty sight," said Giovanni, a bus driver, pointing at the windmills dotting the horizon.

"But they give us jobs, they give us our daily bread."