ARCIDOSSO, ITALY -- In southern Tuscany, about 35 miles south of Siena, winding roads unfurl views of lush, green hills and sprawling valleys lined with olive and chestnut trees. Like gems among these riches lie small, quintessential Italian villages whose existence was first documented in the ninth century: Arcidosso, Castel del Piano, Piancastagnaio, Santa Fiora, Seggiano. In the background rises Mount Amiata, a volcano that erupted 300,000 years ago.
While the volcano has remained dormant since then, it is the source of another, very modern kind of eruption: a protest over a geothermal energy plant.
On a sunny day in May, several dozen demonstrators gathered in a parking lot next to the Justice of the Peace here with banners and balloons declaring “No alla geotermia” (“No to geothermal energy”) and “La geotermia distrugge L’Amiata” (“Geothermal energy is destroying Amiata”). A series of speakers over a loud sound system rallied the crowd against the backdrop of a banner proclaiming, “Giu le mani dalla nostra terra!” (“Hands off our land!”)
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere crossed 400 parts per million earlier that month, a threshold that signified the relentlessness of the march toward climate change. So why was the crowd protesting a plant, called Bagnore 4, that proposes to provide clean, renewable energy?
Italy has a long history with geothermal energy. About 40 miles northwest of Mount Amiata lies the world’s first geothermal plant, Larderello, built in 1913. Additionally, according to the GSE Group, Italy gets 7 percent of its renewable energy from geothermal, compared to 3.5 percent across the whole European Union. Plus, all of Italy's geothermal energy is located in Tuscany. Italy also relies on renewable energy more than the United States, with 15.8 percent of its installed electricity coming from renewables, more than three times as much as the United States, at 4.8 percent.
Plants in Larderello now power two million households. In 1998, Enel Green Power, which also operates plants in Nevada and is a subsidiary of Italy’s largest power company, built the Bagnore 3 plant at Mount Amiata; the facility provides 20 megawatts (MW) of power, enough to power 62,000 homes.
The 40MW Bagnore 4 plant under construction here promises to save 70,000 metric tonnes (77 tons) of oil equivalent annually, but opponents say that it will pollute the air, produce carbon emissions and increase the concentration of arsenic in the local drinking water.
Andrea Borgia, a geologist and volcanologist who works in the Italian High Commission for Environmental Impact Assessment, spoke during the protest. “I’m totally in favor of geothermal energy as long as it is developed in a way that is environmentally friendly and that is zero emissions and maintains the original pressure of the geothermal reservoir,” he told SmartPlanet after his public remarks.
In the 1990s, Borgia worked for the public prosecutor of the regional government, studying now-shuttered geothermal plants near Mount Amiata. He opposes the new plant because, he says, geothermal fields have already dropped Amiata’s water table, increasing the concentration of naturally occurring arsenic. What's more, Borgia says that Enel is releasing carbon dioxide and other pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and mercury into the air -- and that it doesn't have to. (Of the geothermal fluid extracted at the plant, only a quarter is re-injected into the reservoir, and the rest, containing these pollutants, is released in the form of vapor.) He concedes that Enel began pollution abatement at Bagnore 3 in 2002, but says it is insufficient.
Massimo Montemaggi, Enel Green Power’s head of operations and maintenance of geothermal power in Italy, says that the plant doesn’t actually emit any more carbon or pollutants into the air than what would be naturally emitted.
“Due to elements naturally present in geothermal areas, gas emissions can be present to a certain extent in those areas, independently from the presence of power generation activities,” he told me via email. He also adds that gas re-injection would be possible if the gas content were low, but at Amiata, re-injecting the gas into the reservoir would eventually render the extracted fluid unusable, making it impossible to produce geothermal energy there.
Adele Manzella, a geophysicist and researcher at the National Research Council who is not involved in the Bagnore 4 plant but is familiar with the project says, “It’s a complex situation.… I know exactly what they are saying on both sides.” She says Enel is using state-of-the-art technology at Bagnore 4 and, “It is true that they do not re-inject in all the liquids, but for technical reasons, it is not done in any place in the world with similar conditions.”
As for opponents’ other criticisms, Manzella says that carbon emissions were a natural effect, but admitted: “Since there wasn’t any environmental monitoring before the exploitation in the 1960s, … now it is very hard to distinguish between what is due to the geothermal exploitation and the natural background of the area.”
She believes the controversy stems from the residents’ lack of trust in Enel and local policy: They did not solve air pollution problems in the Amiata area for a long time, creating bad publicity that is fueling suspicions about the drinking water.
Unfortunately, Manzells says, there is no conclusive evidence as to whether the geothermal work is affecting the level of the drinking water, and a study will take years: “It is a matter of debate, and people there do not know what to believe. It is left to the opinions of the people or scientists or other experts having one interest one way or another.”
Correction, August 9 at 11am: This article has been updated with the correct percent of Italy's renewable energy that comes from geothermal -- 7 percent, a figure much lower than originally reported.
Top photo: Bagnore 3 plant; Middle and bottom: protest against Bagnore 4 (author's own)