What has happened in Varese is unusual. On a national level, Italy is set to fall short of its EU objective of generating 25 percent of its gross electrical consumption from renewable energy sources by 2010. Italy’s share of renewables was just 13.93 in 2005.
But the mayor of Varese, Michaela Marone, and her predecessor, Maurizio Caranza, turned their vision of a town driven by renewable energy into reality by leveraging funds from the EU and using their authority to cut through red tape.
The town uses wind, solar and small-scale hydropower, a mix best adapted to its hilly terrain covering a total of 140 square km — and it has plans for more hydropower.
Today, renewables bring not only environmental benefits but also improved living standards to a town that had suffered from years of steady decline. An additional 350,000 euros [US $514,000] in tax revenues is handed over to the council each year by the private company that owns the renewable energy network.
"We fulfill all the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol and are non profit. We use all of our profits towards paying the electricity bills of the people in the town," Michaele Marone, the town mayor, told RenewableEnergyAccess.com.
Four wind turbines located on a ridge 1100 meters above sea level — where the average annual wind speed is 7.2 meters per second — generate 8 million kWh of electricity a year that is fed into the local grid managed by Acam, a power company in La Spezia.
The electricity from the wind turbines alone reduce carbon emissions by 8,000 tons, representing 0.05 percent of the region’s total annual carbon emissions.
Photovoltaic (PV) panels have been installed on the town hall and the local school. The town hall has 102 PV panels covering 95 square meters and generating 12,700 kWh a year, which supplies 98 percent of the total energy consumption of the building.
Varese’s secondary school has 39 PV panels covering 36 square meters and producing 4,600 kWh a year, which supplies 62 percent of the energy used.
In addition to that, the town’s swimming pool is heated by solar power and a program to promote the use of wood pellet stoves is in the works.
In conjunction with the development of a renewable energy infrastructure, the town has also launched initiatives to make Varese 100 percent sustainable. A total of 108 organic farms now supply 98 percent of the town’s food; water is purified using environmentally friendly technology and waste has been significantly reduced.
The town has seen a six-fold increase in tourists in the last ten years, many coming just to see its renewable energy network.
Varese Not Alone
Although certainly a pioneer in Renewable Energy, Varese is not the only town in Europe to adopt such measures. The same thing is happening in many towns across Europe.
Güssing in Austria with 27,000 inhabitants has also switched to renewable energy sources — and has also moved from poverty to prosperity, underlining the potential of renewable energy for creating new jobs and new investment.
And it’s not only rural towns that are forging ahead with renewable energy projects. There has been a marked increase in the numbers of cities across Europe adopting initiatives to cut carbon emissions and develop green energy.
Following Rome and London, Paris launched a new "Plan Climat" or climate plan on October 1st 2007 to reduce carbon emissions.
Munich, Germany has also developed a strategy for cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030.
Beatrice Alcaraz from Energie-Cités, an association of European local authorities for the promotion of local sustainable energy policies that represents more than 500 towns and cities, told RenewableEnergyAccess.com that the driving force behind all of this expansion was EU policy.
"Municipalities have to adapt their national policies to the European directives, that is the European directive of public building. They also have to develop the renewables to achieve the EU energy and climate objectives," she said.
The EU is targeting urban areas because more than 80 percent of the European population lives there, and the energy consumption of cities is growing.
The latest figures from French Environment and Energy Management Agency (Agence de l’Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l’Energie (Ademe)) show that the energy consumption of French cities grew by 14.5 percent between 1990 and 2005 from 27 billion KWh in 1990 to 31 billion kWh in 2005.
"The rapid development of renewable energy in so many towns and cities across Europe augurs well," said Beatrice Alcatraz, speaking about how cities are combating this increase in energy consumption while keeping down carbon emissions from fossil fuels.
Though cities cover only 0.4 percent of the world’s total area, they consume 75 percent of the energy and generate about 80 percent of the carbon emissions according to a study by the Münchener Rück.
Jane Burgermeister is a RenewableEnergyAccess.com European Correspondent based in Vienna, Austria.