The Alps: Europe’s lung of clean energy

— 28 febbraio 2013 | AKU team

The Alps, from time immemorial considered to be a great source of natural, clean and renewable energy. With the arrival of electricity between the 1800s and the 1900s they covered an important role in the development of the manufacturing industry thanks to the abundance of water and the presence of steep slopes, which allowed for the construction of several hydroelectric power plants. Also today, with the rapid change of economic paradigms concerning the exploitation of hydrocarbons, they are again facing an innovative challenge, playing a pioneering role in the production of renewable energies in Europe, thanks again to the abundance of water, biomass, wind and sun.

In the era of green economy the development of renewable energies make it possible for alpine areas to rethink their production and consumption of energy from scratch: by directly taking the initiative, starting from the bottom, from the needs and the locally available resources.

The examples of success are already numerous along the Alps: starting from Prato allo Stelvio in the heart of the Bolzano Alps, the first self-sustaining town in terms of energy, thanks to a mixture of wooden biomass, hydroelectric energy, biogas from livestock, solar and wind power and it is not necessary anymore to import crude oil or other fossil hydrocarbons. It is an area that has been able to self-organize, to value and manage the resources that the environment offers by way of a cooperative to which almost all residents of the municipality belong as members.

And if we turn to the northwest, in the Maira Valley, in the heart of the Alpine valleys of Cuneo, we can find further interesting examples: at the end of the nineties the company Maira SpA was founded, a public-private enterprise created to use and value the natural resources available in the area according to sustainability criteria.

Today Maira SpA manages two hydroelectric plants and generates profits that are reinvested in services, initiatives and projects that benefit those living, working and studying in the valley, for example the establishment of a public broadband internet that covers even the upper valley.

In Allgäu, Bavaria, in the small German town of Wildpoldsried, renewable sources produce twice their energy needs. Constant wind, forests of spruce pine, sun, biomass and water courses, have allowed its 2500 inhabitants to “unplug” from the energy networks of nuclear power plants. The energy produced in excess is sold at a high price to other neighbouring communities. Every year the photovoltaic systems installed on public buildings alone brings around 50.000 euros into the municipal purse. And then there are the farmers who deliver sewage and silage to the digester of the biogas plant; wind generators in which citizens have invested their savings; the three hydropower plants in town, one of which directly managed by the mayor. However, the true pride of the city is the wood pellet thermal power plant. The station had a cost of half a million euros, but is able to save about 150.000 litres of fuel oil and 470 tons of carbon dioxide a year while heating 19 public and private buildings through a small district heating network.

The reorganization of the energy systems through renewable sources at the local scale is now in full swing, with virtuous dynamics of involvement, participation and self-organization of local players. It is finally the time to implement a successful and mature integration between energy production and territory.

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