Wind energy in Europe: Mafia prospers from planning restrictions

Environmentalists and the Mafia make strange bedfellows in the pursuit of wind power in Sicily. You could be forgiven for wondering if the notorious Italian gangs have belatedly developed a conscience. In reality this episode serves to highlight the deep contradictions in European policies towards renewable energy.

As reported in the FT today, wind farm development on the Italian island is mired in a web of corruption. And Italy is not alone, with similar allegations of corruption in north-east Spain and the Canary Islands in the past month alone.

At EUR180 per kwh, the subsidies available for wind power installations in the EU undoubtedly feed this corruption. Just as important are the planning laws in Europe. Concerns about the unsightliness of wind farms have meant that permits to construct installations have been held back by local planning committees. In the UK, planning restrictions are threatening a nascent industry, with the wind turbine maker Vestas announcing that it will cut 600 jobs because wind farm development is so slow.

The contradictions between the world’s most generous subsidies for renewable energy, and the power to hold back planning applications vested in local officials is what creates a market for corruption in Sicily. Where others are unable to get permission to build wind farms, it is alleged that the Mafia have been able to ‘fix’ permits through bribery and extortion.

The FT’s investigation noted that since a freeze on new projects was announced under Salvatore Cuffaro, Sicily’s previous regional governor, the value of existing developments has risen dramatically. Mr Cuffaro has been convicted by a court in Palermo for helping the Mafia in a separate case. With such contradictory policies operating, it is no surprise that there is money to be made in finding loopholes and lining pockets.

Is any of this really a problem for Italy’s energy industry? Analysis in the paper notes that a number of the wind farms are standing idle, although this is due to a lack of grid connections, rather than Mafia involvement per se. Several of the developments have been sold onto multinational companies, and are contributing to the EU’s renewable energy targets.

Nor is the problem of planning restrictions forcing up the value of sites that have permission to build wind farms a problem for Italy alone. An FT report last year revealed that in the UK subsidies for wind power were creating bumper profits for operators of sites, without bringing forward enough new investment in wind farms.

The ethics of buying a wind farm from a criminal gang are rightly troubling organisations such as International Power, a UK-based company that is the largest operator of wind power in Italy. But it is a damning criticism of planning policies in Europe when they encourage criminal gangs to prosper, leaving legitimate industries to wither.