11 May 2009: Italy, energy and travelling by rail

For some reason, Italian politics is not currently focussed on energy issues – Berlusconi’s love life is regarded by the media as more interesting! Nevertheless, last week, I went to Rome to talk to Chicco Testa, who used to be chairman of Enel, Italy’s largest energy utility (and the third largest in Europe). He has now set up an organisation called NewClear to press Italy and other European countries to build new nuclear power stations. However, my aim was not just to promote nuclear power, but also renewables and electric vehicles.

Italy has no fossil fuel reserves, so its 50% of its electricity is produced from gas. This makes it politically vulnerable and it had serious energy problems during the Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute earlier this year. 15% of its energy is generated from coal and another 15% from oil. Hydro, at about 13%, is the only significant renewable capacity installed. Solar, biomass and wind produce less than 2%, despite the excellent resource. In addition, 15% of Italy’s electricity is imported, largely from France. In total, Italy imports 87% of its energy (including oil for transport and gas for heating).

In 1987, Italy held a referendum, which decided that Italy should become non-nuclear. As a result, by 1990, all nuclear power stations had closed. However, it is now considering building new ones. In February this year, it signed an agreement with France to build four new reactors. Berlusconi claimed that “the future of renewables is nuclear” (see ISN: Italy’s Nuclear Ambitions). He’s right that new nuclear power stations are necessary – they’re less dangerous or polluting than coal. However, they aren’t renewable! They depend on uranium, which will run out at some stage. Therefore, nuclear power is a bridge technology. There should be one more programme of building nuclear stations to provide low-carbon electricity for lighting, IT and surface transport as the world moves as quickly as possible to a 100% renewable energy system. Clearly, the world economy could and should be 100% renewable, but, realistically, that won’t be possible until 2040 at the earliest.

I came back from Rome by train. This was a great experience and demonstrated again that travelling this way is not only better for the climate than flying, but is also much less hassle and more enjoyable (see A Rome-London train journey). Therefore, it seems to me that the immoral international agreement that prevents taxation of aviation fuel should be scrapped and the revenue raised from taxing flying spent on making railways more extensive, more efficient and cheaper and more pleasant to use.

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