Sardinia - Wind-averse island thinks again

ITALY: Although blessed with some of Italy's best wind resources, the island of Sardinia has for years been virtually off the wind power map. That had been changing as a number of projects, many ranking among the country's biggest, moved forward.

The installation of the first cable of a new submarine power link in November 2009 has helped head off many of the potential problems associated with the grid's ability to absorb wind power. Furthermore, the head of the regional government, elected in February last year, has pledged to make the so-called green economy a priority.

But hopes that wind development on the island would pick up pace were dashed in March when the regional government announced policies making it almost impossible to develop new projects on the island. The president of Sardinia, Ugo Cappellacci, not only reiterated the region's opposition to offshore wind farms but also indicated that the region would directly take over the task of developing those on land.

Possibly spurred by vocal public opposition to offshore wind farms, and with a growing number of his own political coalition against large-scale exploitation of wind energy on Sardinia, Cappellacci outlined measures he said would allow the island to defend itself "from the assault of the wind (industry) gentlemen".

These measures included a pledge to take legal action, where necessary, to head off the growing interest in offshore wind development in Sardinia. Cappellacci also announced that a draft law had been prepared to create a public agency, Sardegna Energia Spa, to oversee the development and management of renewable energy plants on the island, including wind. These proposals amounted to a virtual block on all new wind projects - apart from those awaiting authorisation, those that had cleared environmental impact screening and those being developed by industries on the island solely to produce energy for their own use.

But some experts believe that court cases brought against the region's new measures are likely to force the Sardinian government to relax its prohibitive policy on future wind development. Also, a number of Italian renewable energy trade bodies and environmental associations such as Greenpeace have urged the Sardinian government to rethink its approach amid concern that the approach could impede the development of renewable energy on the island.

"My opinion is that the region's resolutions are a bit weak in the sense that they could be subject to court appeals," says Alessandro Ferri, head of domestic wind operations at Italian oil refining group Saras. "Probably the region felt like it needed to say something because it felt under pressure with all the requests (to build wind plants) it had received."

Ferri notes that a number of new projects examined by the current regional government were rejected due to restrictive wind farm siting rules established by the previous government. These rules limit wind farms to industrial sites and the adjacent territory, or to locations that have already been compromised. "They said no because that's what the existing laws established, but they weren't ready to say yes, either," Ferri says. "I see these new resolutions as more of a postponement (of a definitive ruling)."

Big projects

At stake is future development in one of Italy's most important wind regions. In 2009, Sardinia's installed wind capacity increased by 118MW to 585MW. By March 2010, this had risen to about 635MW. Largely responsible for the 2009 increase was the 99MW Monte Grighine project, developed by Denmark's Greentech in partnership with EDF Energies Nouvelles, the renewables unit of French utility Electricite de France. That wind farm is now Italy's largest, although it is likely to be overtaken shortly. Furthermore, despite the region's recent veto on wind, a number of developments are under construction or far enough advanced to ensure they should be built.

Developers in Sardinia have long been accustomed to the problems of pushing through projects on the island. In 2004, Cappellacci's predecessor, Renato Soru, imposed a moratorium on new wind energy projects, even for those with authorised developments. Despite this, however, the market began to be pried open as Soru's government lost a series of court cases brought by developers. Cappellacci could in theory be forced to do likewise. In late 2008, a previous cap limiting installed capacity on the island to just 550MW was scrapped.

Cappellacci says he remains committed to renewable energy and has ruled out the island playing a part in Italy's planned nuclear energy revolution. "We're abandoning coal and we don't have petroleum," says Sandro Angioni, head of the regional government's industry department. "What we have is sun and wind, although we can't exploit them by destroying our other important industry, tourism."

Ferri of Saras is confident that rules will be introduced to allow new projects to be developed. This would help Saras; through its Sardeolica unit, the company owns the Ulassai wind farm. Currently operating at 72MW capacity, it aims to be operating at 96MW later this year if the company receives authorisation for the installation of new turbines and the full exploitation of existing machines' capacity. Ferri says the group also has four other Sardinian projects, with a combined capacity of 150MW, in development.

New cable link

Sardinia is well placed to develop a thriving wind sector. A new high-voltage submarine cable connecting it with the Italian mainland had improved the island's potential to develop wind projects. The first of the Sardegna-Peninsula Italiana (SAPEI) project's two 500MW, 430 kilometre undersea cables was installed last November, with the second due to be completed later this year. With SAPEI in place, transmission system operator Terna forecast in a 2008 study that 1GW could be installed on Sardinia by 2012 with complete grid security. Terna estimated that as much as 1.5GW could be installed with possible production cutbacks of only about 5%; significant production cutbacks had been foreseen without the new cable link.

Sardinia's potential wind power capacity is unclear. A 2008 study by industry body Associazione Nazionale Energia del Vento forecast that wind plants with total capacity of 1.75GW could be operational in 2020, producing roughly 3TWh of electricity a year. Although some experts believe this is overly optimistic, projects already under construction or in the advanced stage of the authorisation process should allow the island to cross the 1GW threshold in the next few years.

Falck Renewables, the London-based wind development arm of the Italian Falck Group, aims to begin installing turbines for its 138MW Budduso-Ala dei Sardi project later this spring. Falck expects to have the first 82MW operational this year, with the remaining 56MW in capacity coming online next year. While it should take over the title of Italy's largest wind farm, the Budduso-Ala dei Sardi project also stands out for its wind resources. Falck estimates an annual average production of 2,500 equivalent full-load hours, a figure that is high by Italian standards.

Other projects under construction include a 74MW wind farm in Bonorva being built by EDF Energies Nouvelles and a 25MW wind farm straddling the municipalities of San Basilio, Siurgus Donigala and Goni. That project will be the first by a joint venture between Italian developer Fri-el Green Power and RWE Innogy, the renewable energy unit of German utility RWE. After Monte Grighine, Greentech is also working on a 24MW expansion project for its 21MW Energia Verde wind farm on the island.

One of two projects at an advanced stage of the authorisation process is a 100MW project in Portoscuso developed by Enel Green Power, which expects to begin construction of the project later this year. The group has secured 39 Siemens 2.3MW turbines for the first 90MW of the wind farm, which it then plans to expand to 100MW. Progress on the Portoscuso project comes shortly after Enel's expansion of its Sa Turrina Manna wind project in Sardinia from 24 to 84MW.

Portovesme Srl, a lead and zinc smelter owned by Swiss company Glencore, plans to install an 81MW wind farm, comprising 27 3MW turbines in Portoscuso and Gonnesa, the same municipalities where the Enel Green Power project is located. Electricity from the plant, which is likely to be expanded in the future, will be used solely to meet the smelter's own energy needs.

While the Sardinian government is seeking a near monopoly on the development of onshore wind farms, it has ruled out offshore development altogether. This hasn't stopped developers from trying, however. "About 18 offshore projects have been presented," says Angioni.

Indeed, despite the region's opposition, some developers could, in theory, push through offshore projects. While Italy's regional governments take the lead role on authorising onshore projects, the national government has tried to assert that it has the final word on authorising those offshore. Thus far, however, no offshore wind projects in Italy have made it through what remains a nebulous authorisation process.

As for the island's offshore potential, a 2006 study by government electricity system research group ERSE indicated a potential of about 200-450MW at sea depths of less than 30 metres; a further 250-500MW at sea depths of 30-60 metres and another 1,000-2,000MW in deeper waters. ERSE engineer Claudio Casale notes that the vast majority of Sardinia's potential appears to lie in waters too deep to be exploited with existing technology. However, that could change if floating turbines become commercially viable.