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Zero Emissions Rome

October 3, 2008

The fact that renewable energy is no longer the terrain of the radical green counter culture is illustrated pretty clearly in the photo above which I took at the Zero Emissions Rome trade fair yesterday.  Green is turning officially gold in Italy. Or, more precisely,  “Europe” since many of the exhibitors were from other European nations.

Two huge pavilions were dedicated to “sun” and “sun/earth” —the latter seemed to result from the fact that there were so many exhibitors in the solar energy field that one pavilion was not enough, but they shared space with green chemical companies and the like. Another was dedicated to wind, and a fourth that I didn’t make it to was supposed to address carbon neutrality.

I spent most of my morning looking at photovoltaic panels, by far the biggest sector of the growing market. Italy ranks fifth as producer of electricity through photovoltaic cells, after Germany, Japan, Spain and the USA.  To date almost 200 Mw of production capacity has been installed here; in Europe as a whole the number is 3.4 Gw (thanks mostly to Germany). This may still sound small compared to the multi terawatt capacity of nuclear and hydroelectric plants in Europe, but it is growing rapidly. Italy has been slow to jump on the bandwagon but thanks to a combination of high government incentives, the most costly electricity in Europe, and its sunny climate, the boot is finally showing some interest in photovoltaics. Strangely, the region where it is most productive is Lombardia, not among the sunniest, but sunny and southern Puglia is in second place. The reason has to do with confused regulations, differing from region to region, in place of a much needed national guideline.

Lacking was any serious attention to design of photovoltaics above and beyond the standard rigid panel composed of 50-100 cells.  It still seems like the days that computers were big grey boxes and monitors flickered with green text. Design was evident in the marketing materials (some great graphics and nice stand design) but not in the products or their representatives who from their looks could have just as easily been selling tractors or pharmaceuticals. While some stands showed sophisticated fastening systems and transparent glass panels without the ubiquitous aluminum frame, there was no real cutting edge application of the technology on display.  And worse, none of it was put to use despite the sunny day. As far as I could tell there were megawatts worth of panels on display but the entire fair was being powered by the national grid. Did anyone even think of putting all these panels to use to demonstrate their functionality? I suppose that would be like suggesting that an automotive show actually had cars with their engines on; a logistic nightmare not to mention health hazard.

On a similar note, the Fiera di Roma (the convention center where the show was held) is urbanistically one of the worst buildings that could have been built in the current age of environmental crisis. Located far on the edge of town, near the airport, it was made for cars and in fact is surrounded by a sea of parking like any suburban shopping mall. Instead of being built adjacent to the Rome-airport train line it was placed just far enough away to require a shuttle bus to make the rounds, a degrading, polluting and time-consuming experience.


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