This interview by Emanuela Barbiroglio is part of a special edition of The BEAM in cooperation with Patagonia about community-owned energy across Europe. You can find the zine in all Patagonia stores!
A hilly landscape with a thousand citizens, kissed by the sun and blown by the wind, sounds like the essence of Italian countryside. The local administration is making the most of it, well beyond romance.
“We always thought that ecological transition is important for our territory,” tells us Lucilla Parisi, the mayor of the small Italian village of Roseto Valfortore. “Roseto is among the villages that are leaders in our region, Apulia. And Apulia, thanks to small villages like ours, is a national leader in renewables.”
Part of a wider area made of 29 tiny places in southern Italy, the Daunian Mountains, 15 years ago Roseto joined the club I Borghi più belli d’Italia (the most beautiful Italian villages), an association of small Italian towns of historical interest.
It is also among the 5,500 local authorities that have less than 5,000 citizens, out of 8,000 in total across the entire country. So, Italy really is made of many Rosetos, each with its own natural resources.
Over a decade ago, in order to make the most of this potential, Parisi developed a project for two wind turbines and a new form of energy company that was partly public and partly private. The small wind farm opened in 2012 and it’s still working today.
Despite the troubles, from slow permissions to legal issues, they reached their aim “to be a local authority believing in this and giving its citizens a key role.” The best was yet to come.
In 2018, the council asked researchers at Friendly Power to analyse the feasibility of an energy community. In 2019, Roseto finally presented a plan to become such a community, starting with 200 KW mainly produced by photovoltaic in addition to a few more wind turbines.
“Small villages can really be laboratories for startups and innovative technologies. We hope to spread our model soon.”
“The new rules made bureaucracy slightly lighter, so we collected applications from interested citizens who want to form an association,” Parisi says. “We can only provide 200KW, but we are getting there. Today, there are many citizens who have expressed an interest in becoming a part of the association”. As she points out, “the local population was not entirely new to alternative energies, as this has been the first region to be ‘conquered’”.
Friendly Power, who carried out the project in the municipality of Roseto, is a company engaged in the promotion, development, construction and management of energy communities. They worked with Creta Energie Speciali, from the University of Calabria, to design and manufacture innovative products (smartmeter, nanogrid) and services (powercloud).
Made up of self-producing citizens, producers and energy consumers, the futuristic energy community will be able to annually increase the share of renewable energy produced and / or consumed, bringing it within three years to 100% or more of the total. Originally, the feasibility study showed four phases.
Phase 1, which has already begun, consists of the transformation of residential buildings and old factories from “consumer” to “prosumer” and the installation of photovoltaic panels by each person in the community. Each plant will be equipped with a smartmeter with a self-consumption from renewable sources equal to 35%.
In Phase 2, more smartmeters and the nanogrid will be installed to reach self-consumption of 75%. In Phase 3, the community plants for a different solar and wind farm will be built to reach an energy consumption of 100%, allocating any surplus of energy to be sold outside the community itself. Phase 4 envisages the extension of the energy community throughout the surrounding area, using the powercloud service and perhaps a physical connection.
Looking at the latest laws, Friendly Power supplemented their previous work as the new regulation allows Roseto Valfortore to significantly speed up the realisation of the four phases. The energy produced by one or more plants can be shared and self-consumed by several self-consumers, albeit in virtual form and provided that they all underlie the same secondary cabin. This allows them to start immediately from Phase 3 and citizens and SMEs can participate immediately even if they do not have suitable appliances for the installation of photovoltaics.
As for now, the next step will be the green light by the Italian multinational manufacturer and distributor of electricity and gas, E-Distribuzione. Parisi says the new energy community will be born before summer 2021.
“We are only waiting for the last agreement with Enel and the notary’s approval. After that, our community will be officially born, possibly as soon as May 2021. Then, if we can form more associations, we will be able to produce even more energy.”
Technology innovations are there to help, explains Vincenzo Raffa, member of the board of directors at Friendly Power, who drafted the social, economic and financial study of Roseto’s energy community.
According to Raffa, “the goal of the energy community is to keep even a small percentage of this energy richness that has already been available for 20 years.”
“We don’t do what we do in contrast with who wants to invest here, as our means are certainly more limited compared to multinational companies,” he says. “But we try to build a model for sustainable local development.”
The smartmeter is able to instantly acquire and send all sorts of electrical data (voltages, currents, active power, reactive power, active energy, reactive energy, power factor) allowing users to know their own consumption in real time. With this monitoring system, it is possible to calculate the power and energy produced or absorbed by the user’s systems. Furthermore, it distinguishes between the powers and energy introduced, absorbed, produced by a possible generation plant (such as photovoltaic) and the total power absorbed by the loads. The frequency of acquisition of these quantities can be chosen by the user based on his needs.
On the other hand, the nanogrid is able to integrate and manage different generation systems, mainly from renewable sources, and create a polygeneration system. It was designed to connect to other nanogrids, even if they are not physically interconnected, to share energy resources and to operate off grid. It connects to the public grid through a special interface based on an inverter. It is also able to create a local network, if there is not yet a public one. Furthermore, the ability of nanogrids to communicate with each other and with the transmission system operator (distributor, aggregator, reseller) makes it possible to integrate through the powercloud, recording at the same time the exchanges that take place between the three subjects of an energy community: consumers, prosumers and plants.
“We deploy local natural and human resources, so obviously everything is done in a local way,” Raffa adds. “People’s competencies are present and they allow us to create an autonomous system. The next step would be to continue doing it also with local money, in order to create a virtuous circle that grows year in year.”
He is also a member of the working group that is building more energy communities in the neighbouring regions of Campania and Basilicata.
“As a company, we are working in other villages in Apulia, Basilicata and Campania. Roseto Valfortore was the first one that we worked with and it’s been the first where we built the plants. The presence of renewable energy is particularly intense in this area. It already produces 100 times the energy we need to sustain ourselves.”
An energy community can amplify the possibilities of locals to participate with their means and small investments. In a country like Italy, the exception could become the rule.
“In fact, Italy has huge potential for energy communities. Small local authorities already represent a community, because they are places where everybody knows each other. The next step is the energy. Whenever the legislators will make participation easier for everybody, it could become a natural process.”
Raffa’s colleague Luigi Fuschetto highlights the importance of engaging the public opinion and providing them with a brave role model. “We show people our progress step by step, so as to let them feel involved,” he says. “The council building will be the first to have solar panels, therefore we can build trust and address any doubts by showing the way.”
“We have a systemic approach, where the council is the first to put itself out there and citizens can follow if they like what they see,” Fuschetto adds. “When a major is on the front line, it tears down the wall of suspiciousness and promotes awareness.”
Speaking of examples, Parisi is positive. “Small villages can really be laboratories for startups and innovative technologies. We hope to spread our model soon
All Photos by Vito Giannini