Analysis - Is the Italian mafia turning green?

ITALY: Italy's anti-mafia investigators plan to continue following the wind industry after a series of recent high profile cases have revealed an interest of organised crime in the country's wind sector.

The five men (including the local mayor) arrested over the Alcantara-Peloritani project
The five men (including the local mayor) arrested over the Alcantara-Peloritani project

"We definitely remain on alert. The mafia has reinvented itself and discovered green energy," said Captain Filippo Tanco Lutteri, an official taking part in an ongoing anti-mafia probe involving two Sicilian wind farms owned jointly by Spanish wind giant Iberdrola and Italian energy group API.

That probe has focused on subcontracting agreements for the construction of the 64.6MW Nebrodi and 47MW Alcantara-Peloritani wind farms that came online last year. It resulted in the arrests in February of a former mayor and four other individuals, who are being investigated for crimes ranging from external complicity with the mafia to extortion and fraud. Investigators also believe that below-grade cement was used on the projects.

While only one of the five individuals remains in jail due to concerns that he could still tamper with the evidence, Tanco Lutteri said the investigation is continuing and could potentially be extended to other individuals. He expects official charges could be brought later this year.

The most high-profile case involved the definitive confiscation in April of EUR 1.3 billion in assets, including stakes in renewable energy companies, first frozen in 2010 from Vito Nicastri, a 57-year old Sicilian electrician turned renewable energy developer. Investigators have dubbed Nicastri the "king of wind" and suspect he is a front man for none other than Matteo Messina Denaro, a mafia boss who has been on the run for two decades. They allege Nicastri had close and constant relations with Cosa Nostra, as the Sicilian mafia is known, helping his rise to become a leading figure in the Italian wind sector. Nicastri is also charged with having close relations with the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia.

Beyond Sicily

Meanwhile, the 96MW Isola Capo Rizzutto wind farm in Calabria — one of Italy's largest operational wind farms — was confiscated by judicial authorities last July and was still being operated this April by a court-ordered administrator as an investigation into the involvement of organised crime in that project continues. Investigators believe the Arena clan, part of the 'Ndrangheta, invested in the wind farm through the use of shell companies and front men. Colonel Fabio Canziani, an official involved in what is now an international probe, said investigators has received information requested from San Marino and are awaiting information from Germany and Switzerland.

Yet industry participants have largely shrugged off the mafia probes, some of which had been known about for years, saying they represent worrisome but isolated cases.

Alessandro Totaro, who is responsible for wind energy at renewable energy association Aper, believes the mafia investigations represent isolated cases, and should have no repercussions for the sector as a whole: "Often these investigations are manipulated to make unfair generalisations that the Italian wind energy sector is the domain of the mafia, but the majority of investors are serious ones."

An unnamed manager at one Italian renewable developer agreed: "We have invested in Sicily and other parts of southern Italy for the last seven years and we have never experienced any pressure from organised crime." He believes investors can protect themselves by using good advisers to conduct thorough due diligence and by working closely with local law enforcement agencies as a project progresses through the various stages.

There is also a widespread view that the sharp cut seen in Italian wind incentives has made the sector less interesting to the mafia. "My personal view is that incentives were too high in the past," said Canziani. "Now the business has become more competitive, more serious and it's more difficult to earn money. It's also less interesting for organised crime, although I think that's simply a consequence and not the reason the incentives were cut."

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