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What I Learned About Solar While Biking Through Tuscany


Even on vacation, I’m always thinking about solar and how it’s growing in the world…or not. So, it should be no surprise that as I biked through a small part of the Tuscany region of Italy last week, I got off my bike to take pictures of the solar installations that I saw, and I also learned about why Tuscany doesn’t have even more solar.

As I bike past beautiful vineyards in Tuscany, I can't help but ask...where's the solar?

First, some context: Italy has over 17 GW of solar capacity as of 2013, second to Germany. Pretty good! Except now Italy has put its lucrative Feed-In-Tariff incentive to bed and is currently transitioning to net-metering, solar PPAs, and tax benefits. Sound familiar?

Tuscany is known for its rich agriculture, particularly vineyards and olive groves, though I also saw wheat, dairy, grass, and other agricultural products. It’s also a very historical region with medieval and renaissance era towns nestled at the top of hills and overlooking these farms.

 

 

The 11th century town of Capalbio overlooks vineyards and the Mediteranian.

But no solar installations are allowed anywhere within its view, protecting the Capalbio's historic integrity.

As I cycled passed acres of flat and hilltop farmland, similar to solar-rich Sonoma and Napa regions in California, I kept expecting to see large solar farms. But more often than not, I saw very modest solar systems, mostly small rooftop systems and a few ground mounts.

 

 

 

Given all of the land available and the high electricity costs of water pumps, cold storage, and all of the similar electricity demands of U.S. farmers, it seemed like Tuscan farmers hadn’t embraced solar for some reason, which seemed strange since the original FiT scheme was generous when it was in full swing.

I found out why solar was sparse in Tuscany when I spoke to the owner of an agricultural/tourism resort where I stayed. While many farmers would like to have solar, many landowners receive national subsidies to set up farms and renovate their estates to be tourist resorts and bed and breakfasts—while preserving the region’s history and architecture. And that’s the solar problem.

 

Would you put solar on this roof? Me neither. Which is why Italy needs virtual net metering.

Similar to our own historical district regulations, solar is seen as an anachronism, and thus barred from installation within certain areas, even when it might be installed on land that’s out of sight from the historical structure. Thus, if you’re a farmer who receives agricultural-tourism subsidies and/or are within a patchwork of historically designated areas, you can’t install solar. The regulations are apparently complicated, however, so some exceptions are made for small rooftop systems that offset the usage of a single family farmer’s non-historical residence.

At Antic Fattoria La Parrina, the 1830's estate now produces cheese, wine, olive oil, and other agricultural products within its 1600 acres, as well as hosts guests inside its main historic villa. According to the owner, the hotel and its food facilities have a 175,000 euro annual electric bill and could offset a majority of that cost with a patch of solar on its land—if it were in a non-historical district.  

In the U.S., we also have such historical preservation battles, but we have a solution …at least in some states: virtual net metering. Similarly, offsite solar installations could credit Tuscan farms and historical districts with solar kWh credits. From my understanding, Italy does have net metering right now, but it does not have virtual net metering or community solar policies… yet.

One of the few large solar installations I found in Tuscany. It was unclear if it was

connected to a farm facility, or just a revenue stream via the now defunct Italian FIT.

My personal view is that there should be a balance between preserving history in Italy and the U.S. while also allowing for the new age of solar generation and energy storage. By all means, let’s preserve the authenticity of 18th century villas, but let’s also set a reasonable boundary where a landowner can install solar when it’s outside the view of the main historical structures.

If you’ve been to other “hot” solar regions in Italy, please let me know about your experiences there and the current market in the comments below.

Tor Valenza a.k.a. “Solar Fred” is a solar marketing and communications consultant and the author of Solar Fred's Guide to Solar Guerrilla Marketing. Sign up for the Solar Fred Marketing Newsletter, or contact him through UnThink Solar. You can also follow @SolarFred on Twitter.

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