International Papers

Italy Loses Power

In the early hours of Sunday morning, a tree fell in Switzerland, setting off a chain of events that left 57 million Italians without power for 10 to 18 hours. This fourth massive power outage in the space of six weeks (after the mid-August blackout that affected the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, the late-August outage in London, and last week’s power failure in Sweden and Denmark) left the European papers feeling vulnerable.

Italy was especially susceptible to an outage because it imports far more of its electricity than any other European nation—24 percent of its nighttime load and 16 percent of its daytime peak power, as compared with just 2 percent for Britain. The Daily Telegraph explained that in 1987, “in a reaction to the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters, Italians voted in a referendum to make it harder to build nuclear power plants, and building of new non-nuclear power stations has since been blocked by local councils, on ecological and aesthetic grounds.”

The Times of London kicked Italy while it was down, noting that “[y]ears of weak government and bureaucracy have left it critically short of generating capacity.” The rest of Europe has also become too reliant on surplus French nuclear power, the paper said: “On the whole France’s management of its power exports has been exemplary. But it has bred a complacency among those who look to France to fill the widening gap between growing power needs and generating capacity. With deregulation, there is always a danger of power without responsibility.”

La Stampa of Turin expressed Italy’s feeling of vulnerability: “After what happened, a widespread sense of uncertainty has taken hold of us. … [A]ll of Italy is confronted by the effects of 30 years of mistaken energy policies. We thought it wasn’t possible … but it has happened; and now we must do something, immediately, to put things right.” Corriere della Sera, meanwhile, luxuriated in self-loathing:

[T]he problem of liberalization carried out with superficiality is common to many countries. But no one has been able to string together a series of irresponsible or paradoxical behaviors like Italy: from a push towards the nuclear to its total banning, then the most rigid environmental rules in Europe and local authority vetoes on electric cables and power stations, as though the availability of energy was not a vital necessity for citizens and businesses. Not to mention the “crafty” Italian idea of buying a fifth of its electricity from abroad, paying less and leaving the pollution to others. Here’s the result.

For the Financial Times, Italy’s power crunch proved that reforms are necessary before Europe can realize the savings and security that cross-border power transmission could potentially provide: Transmission and generation of electricity need to be “unbundled” even further to give operators incentive to upgrade their transmission grids; a “guiding hand” may be needed to coordinate the building of cross-border interconnectors; and the public needs to accept eye sores. “Interconnectors, except where they can be sunk in the sea, are lines of high-voltage pylons. No wonder people object to them. But the missing links in Europe’s grid will never be filled until the planning process is streamlined. It might be, if any more blackouts occur to drive energy higher up the political agenda.” Spain’s El País fretted that privatization was out of control—”Europe can’t be built only on a common currency whose [economic] requirements sometimes lead to necessary infrastructure investments being overlooked.”

The Italian blackout reminded Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter of the Sept. 23 Scandinavian power failure. Like Italy, Sweden has ruled out the use of nuclear power, but saying no to nukes and to oil and gas in southern Sweden means saying yes to coal from Denmark, Germany, and Poland, “an alternative which is environmentally far inferior even to the major Swedish oil-fired power stations which were put in mothballs for environmental reasons.” (Translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

Britain’s Guardian blamed the blackout on excessive Western energy consumption and insufficient European regulation. Two years ago the European Commission diagnosed potential problems with Italy’s reliance on imported electricity, but according to the editorial, bottom-line considerations trumped these concerns: “More investment, and hence more cash, is needed—both to update ageing electricity grids and to build new power generators, especially with expensive greener technologies. But electricity liberalisation, which has marched across Europe and the US, tends to emphasise lower prices.” If politicians don’t encourage companies to put national concerns before corporate interests, “they will lose power soon after the rest of us do.”