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Sicilian project aims to save the world from ruin, Mafia permitting

March 20, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Palermo, Italy

Published: March 18 2009

Sicily, with its entrenched Mafia and a deep sense of fatalism among its people, might seem a strange choice for a grand project to save the world from environmental ruin. Still, a US guru, corporate executives and the powerful local governor have gathered on the island to launch the “third industrial revolution”.

Leading the world out of the “twilight” era of fossil fuels and cold war nuclear technology, they say Sicily’s 5m people can blaze a visionary trail based on intensive small-scale use of renewable energy sources and pinned on the concept that individual consumers of electricity will also become producers through their super efficient buildings.

“Sicily can be a flagship for the new industrial revolution,” says Jeremy Rifkin, a US professor and energy adviser to the European Commission and heads of government including Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.

San Antonio in Texas and some cities in Europe are said to be close to embracing Mr Rifkin’s vision, even as established interests, including utilities and some backers of Barack Obama’s renewables plan, view him as a misguided futurologist.

Sicily’s energy gameplan was rolled out at the weekend in Palermo, presented by the unusual combination of the charismatic academic and Raffaele Lombardo, the island’s canny, powerful and nationalistic governor.

Mr Rifkin held his audience spellbound for an hour explaining mankind’s slide towards climate wipeout unless it changes course radically and embraces a future based on sun, wind, waves and biomass, and hydrogen technology to store saved electricity.

“If you can create a sustainable Sicily, maybe we can create a sustainable world,” he concluded to a standing ovation.

Sicily, says Angelo Consoli, Brussels-based director of Mr Rifkin’s Foundation on Economic Trends, is an ideal base for two main reasons. First, it has the sun. “All the solar technology producers look at Sicily as a hell of an unexploited market where they can grow fast.” Second, it has Mr Lombardo – a “visionary president . . . who sees the third industrial -revolution as the way to develop his region politically and industrially”.

But ask almost any Sicilian about the project and they answer: “Never, never . . . words, words”. With a shrug of the shoulders, they add: “The Mafia.”

Indeed, keen to diversify, the Mafia is going green. Police recently arrested eight entrepreneurs and local officials suspected of conspiring to fix public funding for a wind farm.

Mr Lombardo conceded that a “green” Mafia was a “danger we are confronting”. Sicily, he said, “needs a cultural revolution”.

The governor has close acquaintance with the judiciary himself. In 1992 he was convicted of corruption involving public contracts but acquitted on appeal. Arrested again in 1994, a similar case was eventually dropped.

A spokesman for the governor pointed out that the early 1990s was the “clean hands” era when magistrates were vacuuming up many suspects, including the innocent. “Mr Lombardo’s criminal record is immaculate,” he said.

Mr Lombardo’s renewable energy strategy has €5bn ($6.5bn, £4.6bn) in funding over five years, mostly from the European Union. He promises to stop any attempt by his close allies in Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government to site a nuclear power station on the island.

In this financial crisis, Mr Rifkin worries that governments will spend too much trying to rescue “old” industries, such as petrol-burning cars and nuclear, and have little left for the new. He commends the US president for seeing the future in renewable energy but says Washington is still too wedded to the idea of large, centralised power stations run on solar and wind power rather than backing his vision of “distributed energy” where efficient buildings can sell surplus power back to the system through “smart grids”.

“Obama has the programme but not the roadmap. The EU has the roadmap but not the money.”

Working city by city – he declines to name those he is dealing with in Europe for commercial reasons – he is marshalling the support of big companies – including IBM, Siemens, Philips Lighting, Cushman & Wakefield in property, and others – in his planning group of chief executives.

Anton Milner, head of Germany’s Q-Cells, the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels, says the dream is starting to become reality. The cost of photo-voltaic systems has dropped 35 per cent over four years. Experimental “smart grids” are being tested in the US and Europe.

Silke Krawietz, a German architect and authority on energy-efficient buildings, points out that zero-energy buildings already exist. “To produce a surplus is much harder but it will happen,” she says.

The International Energy Agency says that buildings worldwide account for more than 40 per cent of primary energy use and 24 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

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