Blog / The butterfly effect of photovoltaic panels

The butterfly effect of photovoltaic panels

Can a photovoltaic panel in Lombardy prevent the formation of a hurricane in Haiti? If you put it like this, probably not, but we are, indeed, already seeing the positive effects of photovoltaics. It has recently become one of the most economically advantageous energy resources: shiny photovoltaic panels are popping up faster and faster on the roofs of our cities and industrial plants.

Clean energy in Italy is undoubtedly growing, but not enough, according to the objectives set out for 2030 by the Paris Agreement on climate. Experts estimate that Italy will be able to achieve only 22% of energy consumption covered by renewable sources instead of the 32% required. This tells us that if on the one hand, the reduction of up to 90% of the price of photovoltaic panels is a factor that is greatly encouraging the adoption of this new technology, on the other hand, there is still a lot to be done from the cultural point of view.

The famous metaphor of the butterfly effect applied to energy choices isn't just a provocation, but a meaningful call to our sense of responsibility. Many of the significant challenges of recent years are, indeed, global in scope and are related to ecological issues, such as climate change, environmental migration, and sustainable development. It is from this global perspective that all the decisions we make, as individuals and, above all, as countries, on energy and sustainability, must be addressed.

Finally, like so many private individuals and entrepreneurs, even public institutions decided to adapt to the change: the decree law no. 34/2019 - the so-called "Growth Decree" for the revival of the Italian economy and the protection of "Made in Italy", provides incentives for Italian municipalities who choose renewable energy sources.

Diffusion of solar energy in the world

from the "Renewable Municipalities" report of Legambiente - 2019

Elaborazione Legambiente su dati IRENAArticle 30 is entitled "Contributions to municipalities for energy efficiency measures and sustainable territorial development" and provides substantial contributions to municipalities that implement measures to curb waste of energy and natural resources. As already mentioned, the incentives also concern the installation of photovoltaic systems, which can result in significant tax benefits.

Environmental protection can be achieved not only through the adoption of clean energy sources: e-mobility, waste management, and reuse of raw materials are other important issues covered by the decree. The incentives, therefore, also concern the scrapping and purchase of less polluting cars and the use of recycled goods. To protect the trees, paper receipts are being scrapped in favour of electronic ones, that even the small businesses will have to send directly to the Revenue Office.

The most interesting thing, however, is to understand how the decree no. 48 named "Provisions on energy", which refers directly to the commitments made by the Italian Government with the initiative "Mission Innovation", for COP 21 in Paris, will be implemented. The initiative required all the members to double, in the next five years, their investment in research, sustainable development, and innovation concerning clean energy technologies. According to the decree, the government seems willing to honour the commitment. However, it remains to be seen which projects will get the financing and to what extent.

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The small jewels of renewable energy in Italy

A cultural transformation always takes place step by step, starting from localised events that become the pioneers of changes in the system. Our peninsula is dotted with virtuous communities that have decided to adopt new systems to preserve and protect our Nature. Let's have a look at a few examples.

In the heart of South Tyrol, in the province of Bolzano, there is the municipality of Val di Funes, a small environmental jewel nestled between the Dolomites. In the past, the inhabitants of this isolated area had solved the problem of energy supply using diesel generators. Today, they set up the "Azienda Energetica Funes Società Cooperativa" which uses renewable energy sources, thus freeing the territory from polluting gases.
On its own, the cooperative produces more clean energy than it consumes and sells the surplus at the national level. The profits are then reinvested, providing discounts on the electricity bill and used to improve the plants.

This is just one of the "100 stories" of our territory that Legambiente has collected and presented in its "Renewable Municipalities 2019" report, which describes the path of sustainable development and change of the Italian energy system starting from a few communities - an event that sees increased welfare in the face of reduced energy expenditure and a decrease in pollutant emissions.

In addition to the cooperative of Funes, there are many other positive experiences, especially in the agricultural sector. One example is the company Val Paradiso in Naro (near Agrigento), where they grow over 100 hectares of organic olive trees, using clean energy to power the entire process. The same happens at the Azienda Agricola Arte, located in Puglia, between Manfredonia and Cerignola that, in the last four years, has been consuming its organic produce in a self-sufficient way thanks to a biogas plant. And there is also the municipality of Cavalese in Val di Fiemme, Trentino-South Tyrol, whose biomass-powered district heating system produces enough electrical and thermal energy to replace over 3,500,000 litres of diesel fuel: all thanks to the processing waste from local sawmills and carpentries.

And all these positive examples are not surprising. The Legambiente report shows that the good news all come from the municipal territories. Here are the numbers: 7,121 solar thermal plants, 1,489 mini-hydro power plants (widespread mainly in the Central and Northern of Italy) and 1,028 wind power plants (especially in the Central and Southern regions), 4,064 bioenergy plants and, finally, 598 geothermal plants.

Legambiente 2019

The result is that as many as 3,054 municipalities, almost 40%, have become self-sufficient from an electrical and thermal point of view. And of these, 41 municipalities are already 100% powered by renewable energy. As a result, Italy has established itself as "one of the most advanced nations in the world in terms of clean energy and with the greatest climatic and environmental opportunities", writes Legambiente. All this is thanks to the high availability and variety of fossil-free resources, abundant from North to South. In ten years - as the report explains - "the production of renewable energy has grown by more than 50 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) resulting in a crisis for the model based on fossils, with a contribution from renewables that has gone from 15 to 35% compared to electricity consumption, and from 7 to 18% in total".

Ultimately, there is no lack of stories that show how it is already possible to live without fossil fuels in Italy. These are several accounts that directly and successfully deal with the theme of self-production and local distribution. However, the Italy that looks at the territory, and at the same time faces the ecological challenges with a European mindset, is still too isolated and underestimated.

Photovoltaics: a global overview

Wind and solar, in particular, are the plants that seem to make the most difference. Some even call the latter the real ace in the hole for the growth of Africa. Solar carports are another renewable energy technology that has seen the least damage in recent years of stalemate in Italy. The reason is simple: thanks to the reduction in technology costs, the price of photovoltaic energy has dropped by 90% in the last ten years, while the cost of energy derived from fossil fuels are still rising. All this makes solar a good investment, with or without government incentives.

The convenience of solar energy is also confirmed globally by the latest report by BloombergNEF (BNEF): New Energy Outlook 2019. According to the survey, in about two-thirds of the world, wind and solar already represent the most cost-effective energy option. It is also estimated that, by 2050, "the costs of wind, solar, and storage technologies will translate into a network, nearly half of which will be supplied by renewables", with wind and solar power increasing from the current 7% of production to 48%. Conversely, in the global energy mix, the role of coal will fall from the current 37% to 12%, with the almost total disappearance of oil as an energy source, while the contribution of hydropower, natural gas, and nuclear power will remain more or less stable. Although the reduction in the costs of panels, turbines, and batteries is already underway, BNEF believes that, especially from 2030 onwards, it will be necessary to develop new technologies, such as biogas and green hydrogen, to limit the global warming to 2 degrees Celsius and reduce emissions once and for all.

Redemption of the poorer communities through renewables

Alongside the numerous virtuous cases, there are still examples such as the Taranto steelworks, which on windy days raise so much iron and coal dust that children are forced to stay at home and can't go to school. Or the case of some public gardens of Brescia, required to display the "Do not walk on the grass" signs, because the soil is impregnated with dioxins, PCBs, and other toxic substances. It is also forbidden to eat cheeses produced near the factories of Portovesme in Sardinia, as they contain poisonous substances. And so on. Decades of industrial activity have left Italy strewn with areas contaminated by hazardous chemicals. Not to mention all the direct and indirect contributions that are still paid in favour of the consumption and production of hydrocarbons. These amount to about 18.8 billion euros, according to the Legambiente estimates.

There is also a study just published by the Italian Higher Institute of Health (ISS), which analyses the health status of the population living in 45 areas that the Ministry of the Environment has identified as "contaminated" and "of interest" to land reclamation: these constitute 319 municipalities with a total of 5.9 million inhabitants. Among all the interesting - and sometimes worrying - data emerging from the report, there is also a clear link between "exposure to toxic substances and social inequality". The researchers explain that, at the national level, "60% of the municipalities analysed are among the most disadvantaged according to various socio-economic indicators".

And this is true not just for Italy: there is a more or less intentional tendency to expose marginalised communities to higher doses of pollutants and, conversely, to deprive them of access to clean resources all over the world. This is the concept of "environmental racism", introduced in 1982 by the report of the US Government Accountability Office. And it's not a coincidence: power plants, mines, and oil pipelines are not built casually, they are willingly located in the poorest districts, in the least developed cities and countries of the world.

Today, however, we can also observe an interesting reversal of this trend. Someone has realised that, for developing countries, renewable sources can make a difference, providing the energy that the inhabitants need for their well-being, but also helping them to enter a good and profitable market, destined to have, in the future, an ever-growing role. Against the common misconception that sees green energy policies as incompatible with emerging economies, the recent research by BloombergNEF, Climatoscope 2018, has shown that the race towards renewables is becoming the prerogative of developing countries more and more often. 2017, in particular, was the turning point, in which emerging nations saw the renewables overtake fossil fuels. On their own, wind and solar power have created, in countries outside the OECD, 114 Gigawatts of new capacity: almost double the 63 Gigawatts of renewable energy of the industrialised countries.

In practice, thanks to the lowering of technological costs and the greater availability of natural resources, emerging economies have taken over the scene of energy transition - a scenario that 10 years ago would have been considered unthinkable. While poverty, difficult grid access and a lack of infrastructure remain significant obstacles to prosperity, renewable energy is becoming a key ally in ensuring a real change of gear for developing countries.

Renwable energy

The consequences of a flap of wings

The butterfly effect seems to be a poetic concept, and in part it is, but it has mathematical foundations and is connected to chaos theory and meteorology. According to some, the expression "butterfly effect" is inspired by "A Sound of Thunder", a 1952 Ray Bradbury story about time travel. In the story, a "tourist", who ends up in a not well-defined prehistoric time, steps on a butterfly by accident, triggering a chain of hallucinatory and unpredictable consequences for the history of the whole of humanity.

Others, prefer to refer to the work of physicist Edward Lorenz, who wrote in a 1963 paper: "One meteorologist remarked that if the theory were correct, one flap of a sea gull's wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever." In following speeches and writings, Lorenz replaced the seagull with a butterfly: "Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?" was in fact the title of a famous conference held by him.

Whether the authorship belongs to Bradbury, Lorenz (or even Turing) and whether it is a seagull or a butterfly has little importance. Without going into too much scientific detail, the message of the butterfly effect is clear in all its aspects:

The whole natural world is interconnected and linked to a complex chain of cause and effect, in which every single action can have unpredictable consequences. Moral of the story is that every action is important and becoming aware of the fact that the individual behaviour of people and nations profoundly affects the environment around us, is one of the biggest challenges of our time.

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