Perhaps one sign of a maturing industry is that the Mafia find their way into the business. Neither Tony Soprano nor Don Corleone ever showed any interest, but now renewable energy advocates have to deal with the hassle, albeit a small one, with which the rest of the business world sometimes deals: Italian “eco Mafia” groups have entered the wind power industry.
And why wouldn’t they? The European Union has set ambitous goals of reducing its collective energy consumption 20% while procuring 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. That 20-20-2020 vision has sent government officials and business leaders scrambling across the continent. Solar panel installations have sprung up across Spain, Sweden launched the world’s first dimethyl ether (DME) vehicle fuel plant, and even body heat is probed as an option in Paris. Italy has often been seen as a laggard in the race for independence from fossil fuels, but its government, despite changing prime ministers as quickly as its football players writhe in fake pain during a football match, has increased the nation’s investment in clean energy. The results are not always happy ones, especially in Sicily, where locals are furious as their landscape looks less like the Mediterranean and more like the Altamont Pass or Holland.
Wind power has become one of the more controversial renewable energy sectors. Fair or not, sometimes the industry comes across as a bully, and locals sometimes feel as if they are ignored while turbines sprout out of the ground, marring landscapes from Oregon to Antia, Greece. Others ensnared in the debate counter that those who howl loudest are the ones who were passed over for the lucrative land leases. But Sicilians, who for years have been weary of the crime syndicates who often dominate commerce, are voicing their opinions even louder.
So far, Sicily hosts 30 wind farms, with another 60 underway. And locals are upset that roads are left unrepaired while giant turbines hover over the island’s windswept hills—with mafiosos and politicians pocketing the profits. Some scofflaws have been arrested for bribing local officials with cash and chic cars, and last fall, 15 people were arrested in a scam involving the pilfering of 30 million in EU funds. Some installations have reported dubious wattage generation claims. Meanwhile, Italy pays the highest rate per wind-generated kilowatt hour in the world: 180 euros. The arrest of Italy’s head of its National Wind Energy Association surely does not help on the public relations front.
In the big picture, the amount of corruption in the renewable energy sector is relatively small, and such problems are not confined to Italy. Those who oppose subsidies for renewable energy projects and their partner organizations funded by energy companies will use this Sicilian episode as a strawman argument to bellow against any progress on the behalf of clean energy. The truth is that most people working in the oil industry are not evil nor are behind nefarious sabotage of all renewable energy initiatives, and renewable energy firms are hardly monolithic when it comes to lining their pockets with government money. Transparency and accountability are key; so is the engagement of the local community, who has a right to be heard.