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Italy: Agriculture and solar PV: A delicate balance

  • Italy
  • Energy and infrastructure - Clean energy

27-04-2021

The delicate balance between utility scale solar PV and use of agriculture land is not a new or recent concept. However, this topic has come to the political fore again due to certain reactions against solar PV on agricultural land.

As set out in the Italian National Energy and Climate Plan, the decarbonisation of the energy sector, and the wider economy, is based on three key points:

  1. The EU targets which are based on the EU Regulations 2018/1999;
  2. The increase in the use of renewable energy sources, especially in the electrical energy generation sector given the intermittency of wind and solar in particular; and
  3. The use of the soil.

The aim is therefore to achieve the EU and Italian target of at least 30% of all energy consumption coming from renewable sources by 2030.

This means there will need to be a surge in the deployment of renewable energy plants, including solar PV, in the coming months and years which will without doubt require the use of a certain amount of agricultural land.

Use of agricultural land for solar PV projects (in particular utility scale grid parity projects) is turning out to be more challenging than perhaps initially expected by developers and investors due to the increasing focus of public and political bodies on the use and conservation of agriculture and agricultural land. This is leading to Regional and Local Authorities to reject permits based on a bias towards the protection of agriculture and related activities over the need to deploy renewable energy plants. Such decisions by the Authorities are often not able to be questioned by Administrative Court judges. This desire to protect agricultural land and agribusiness is also leading to Regional Authorities passing laws to restrict the deployment of renewable energy plants.

This is what is happening in Abruzzo, Basilicata, Veneto and Calabria for example:

Abruzzo: The Regional Council has unanimously approved an amendment to the Bill no. 182/2021 to block the installation of wind farms and ground mounted solar parks and recycling plants (including construction waste) in agricultural areas where there is food production on high quality land or land of cultural importance. The aim of this Bill is to preserve the value of the local and traditional food production and the rural landscape.

Basilicata: On 5 January 2021 the Regional Authority passed a bill to limit the use of large swathes of the countryside for solar PV plants by reducing the limit on the size of such plants to no more than 3MW.

Veneto: Bill no. 41/2021 aims to reconfigure the size of utility scale ground mounted solar PV plants from between 200kWp to 1MWp depending on the type of land. Land used for agriculture or mixed use land involving agriculture cannot have more than 200kW installed on it and “agripolitan” land can have no more than 1MW installed on it.

Calabria: Pending the approval of Landscape Plan which was approved by the Regional Council Decision no. 134 dated 01/08/2016, the practical approach which the regional head of the Environmental Department, under legislative decree dated 22 January 2004 no. 42 (The Landscape and Cultural Assets Code), would like to take is to suspend all permit applications for wind farms and cable laying as they are an attack on the beauty of the regional landscape and the development of tourism.

The direction of travel of these regional laws and provisions is not in favour of the large number of permit applications (potential and current) which would enable the EU renewable energy targets to be achieved.

From a legal perspective, there is a question over whether these laws and provisions are in line with constitutional law. This is against the backdrop of a number of decisions of the Constitutional Court stating that the Regional Authorities cannot set out unchallengeable limits covering the entirety of the Regional territory as this goes against the principle of mass deployment of renewable energy plants as approved at national level (in line with EU law) (Constitutional Court Decision no. 106/2020; Constitutional Court Decision no. 268/2019).

The current conflict between these competing interests does not mean there is not a solution: agrivoltaics and other solutions are available. In Germany, for instance, developers are testing vertical agrivoltaics with bifacial panels. With an East-West face, maximum yield can be achieved in the morning and evening, thus generating more energy than traditional panels. The vertical structure allows agricultural machinery to be used and ecological ecosystems to be preserved and developed in and around the panels. France also appears to be following suit.

These pilots regarding alternative solar PV systems are of great interest and could be used in Italy. There is no doubt that compliance with existing regulation in Italy would need to be checked and verified. One thing is clear is that innovative solutions in order to address the delicate balance between use of land for agriculture and energy generation are going to be key if Italy is to achieve the EU targets within the timeframe set by the EU and the Italian Government.