When you think of Italy, what comes to mind? The cooking? The artwork? The thousands of years of history? It may not be too long before people start to think of solar power when they think of the famed peninsular nation in the Mediterranean Sea: Italy is well on its way to becoming Europe's most solar nation -- even surpassing Germany in some respects.
The Gestore dei Servizi Energetici (Energy Services Manager), an Italian agency that operates the national grid and promotes renewable energy, reported this month that italy now possesses more solar generating capacity than it does wind turbine capacity. Almost all of Italy's solar capacity is in photovoltaic (PV) arrays of less than 200 kilowatts, and a third of it was installed last year by small property owners.
By the end of 2011, Italy's solar generating capacity had reached 12.75 gigawatts, and solar power contributed 10.7 terawatt-hours of power to the Italian grid, about 3% of total consumption, in that year. That put solar at second place in Italian renewables capacity, after the country's nearly 18 gigawatts of hydroelectric power capacity, and third in terms of actual power delivered to the grid after hydro (46.35 terawatt-hours) and bioenergy, which includes biomass, biogas, and liquid biofuels, at 11.32 terawatt-hours.
It's fairly remarkable that solar power delivered to the Italian grid has reached the same general levels as hydro and bioenergy: both hydro and bioenergy can operate 24/7, while solar essentially shuts down late in the evening -- though Italy has dabbled in thermal storage for utility-scale solar generation at its Archimede plant on the east coast of Sicily .
Though Germany still has twice Italy's installed solar capacity, Germany's solar output is far outstripped by wind, which provides about 8% of the more northerly nation's electrical power. Solar met about 3% of the power demand of both countries.
Comparing Italy's solar infrastructure to California's is fairly chastening. Solar doesn't meet 1% of California's demand on a good day. Italy has five times the solar capacity per capita we do here, and they're installing new capacity faster than California is. This is almost certainly due to Italy's robust feed-in tariff focused on small PV installations under 1 megawatt in capacity, which Italy's Parliament renewed and expanded in 2011.
By contrast, Italy's incentives for wind power development are set up in a confusing quota system comparable to California's Renewable Portfolio Standard. More food for thought for those Californians wondering how best to promote renewable energy development.