On pasture land a day’s walk north of Rome, the inventor of radio Guglielmo Marconi set up a broadcasting service in 1931 for the Vatican.
The world’s smallest state now intends to build the biggest solar plant in Europe for 500 million euros ($660 million) on those same 740 acres near the medieval village of Santa Maria di Galeria, project engineer Mauro Villarini said in an interview.
Advised by German solar-panel maker Solarworld AG, the Holy See is running counter to many governments that say harnessing sunlight on a grand scale is too costly to help curb global warming, especially in the deepest recession since World War II.
“Now is the time to strike,” Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican City’s governor, said in an interview from his study overlooking the Michelangelo-designed Basilica of St. Peter’s. “One should take advantage of the crisis to try and develop these renewable-energy sources to the maximum, which in the long run will reap incomparable rewards.”
European nations, daunted by spending needed to stimulate their economies, find it harder to invest in clean power generation required to meet the European Union’s target to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 20 percent by 2020. Italy is balking.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi threatened to play “bad guy” in December by blocking EU-wide emissions cuts because they would hurt the nation’s manufacturers.
While the EU agreement included concessions to ease costs to industry, emissions goals were upheld. Italy is already set to miss its Kyoto treaty target, which calls for releasing 6.5 percent less heat-trapping gases by 2012 from 1990 levels, European Union filings show.
Subsidized by Italy
By contrast, the Roman Catholic city-state is going greener. Advantaged by its small size, the pope will also count on revenue and solar aid from Italy after 2014. That’s when the new plant is scheduled to turn the Vatican into an electricity exporter to the nation that surrounds it.
“Certainly we will try to get what we can in a fair, friendly way with Italy, considering that the State and the Holy See have expenses” to cover by generating revenue, Lajolo said.
The 100 megawatts unleashed by the station will supply about 40,000 households. That will far outstrip demand by Pope Benedict XVI and the 900 inhabitants of the 0.2 square-mile country nestled across Rome’s Tiber River. The plant will cover nine times the needs of Vatican Radio, whose transmission tower is strong enough to reach 35 countries including Asia.
“It’s a wise investment in every way we look at it,” said Umberto Bertelé, chairman of the management school at Politecnico di Milano, in an interview. He said the Vatican will benefit from Italy’s solar incentives that include requiring local utilities to buy sun power at above-market prices.
The Vatican hasn’t decided how much to rely on photovoltaic panels, which turn sunlight directly into electricity, and on thermal devices that heat water for generators, Solarworld Chief Executive Officer Frank Asbeck said in a telephone interview from a holiday on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza.
The Bonn-based company in 2008 may have gained an inside track for a future contract by donating $1.5 million of panels for a 6,300-seat dome used for the pope’s weekly audiences to the world’s Roman Catholics.
A public tender for suppliers and builders is likely, Asbeck said. If the project goes ahead, “We’re quite confident we’ll get the job,” he said.
Solarworld executives in November said it was time to think about a “green” popemobile and offered to give the pope a low- emissions electric car to replace the white armoured Mercedes- Benz open-top G-Class used by the Vatican.
While there has been no switchover since then, Lajolo at the time called an electric popemobile a “brilliant idea. If it costs less and can set an example, why not?”
Solarworld’s German peer SMA Solar Technology AG, based in Niestetal, also donated equipment to the Vatican last year — rooftop collectors for the audience hall. That benefited SMA Solar’s brand recognition in Italy, CEO Guenther Cramer said.
Including installation costs and products from other suppliers as a “turn-key project,” a 100-megawatt plant would cost 350 million euros to 400 million euros to build if it only used Solarworld modules, Asbeck said.
The Germany-born Benedict has been outspoken on environmental issues since becoming pope in 2005. During an address for World Peace Day in 2006, he said: “The destruction of the environment, its improper or selfish use, and the violent hoarding of the Earth’s resources cause grievances, conflicts and wars, precisely because they are the consequences of an inhumane concept of development.”
The Vatican listed pollution as one of seven “social” sins in an effort last year to update the cardinal vices that date to the 6th century.
“You offend God not only by stealing, taking the Lord’s name in vain or coveting your neighbor’s wife but also by wrecking the environment,” Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, said then.
More recently the Vatican has put words into actions.
The 5,000-square-meter roof of the Paul VI auditorium — built in 1971 by Pier Luigi Nervi, the architect who designed Milan’s Pirelli Tower — was covered with 2,400 solar panels to produce 300 kilowatt hours of energy a year, enough for 100 households, cutting carbon-dioxide emissions by about 225 tons.
A large electronic board hangs by the entrance of the Nervi hall that counts the kilowatt hours generated and amount of carbon dioxide saved.
The Vatican’s 300-seat cafeteria for staff will be decked out this summer with a solar-heating system to provide air conditioning and heating for the whole building. Kloben Solar Evolution, based in Verona, won the 300,000-euro contract to install thermal collectors, Villarini said.
The pope’s own Castel Gandolfo summer residence, a 17th- century palace south of Rome in the Alban hills, may be the site of a renewable-energy project to break down biodegradable waste material to produce methane and gas. The Vatican’s engineers are conducting a feasibility study on this.
“We are not thinking only in terms of solar energy but also energy that can be produced from the gasification of natural products,” Lajolo said in a March 20 interview. “So everything that comes from the stable or from hay.”
The most ambitious plan is for the countryside around Santa Maria di Galeria, land that Italy donated to the church and is about 10 times the size of the Holy See. The solar station planned there should reduce about 91,000 tons of carbon-dioxide emissions a year that otherwise would have been produced by fossil-fuel generators, Villarini told Bloomberg.
“If we solve the environmental problem, the benefits are immeasurable,” Lajolo said. “They can cost a bit to be implemented but when they are, they generate incomparable savings if you consider the expense needed to produce oil.”