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The drought has shut down many hydroelectric plants

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In a normal year, at the beginning of March the snow accumulated in the Alps during the winter would begin to melt, swelling the streams, rivers and lakes, basins of water essential for the production of energy in the more than four thousand active hydroelectric plants in Italy. But 2022 has not been a normal year so far. In many regions, especially in the North, it has not rained for over three months: the mountains are bare, the streams reduced to rivulets, the level of the lakes so low that the hydroelectric plants are unable to draw enough water to run the turbines. . Such anomalous conditions have not been seen for decades, say many operators who hope for an increase in rainfall that will allow production to resume at full capacity.

If abundant rains do not arrive in the coming weeks, the production of a portion of energy until next autumn will be at risk, with non-negligible consequences for the country’s energy needs in a period in which supply problems are aggravated by the war in Ukraine. “The drought we are facing has been unique since metering systems have existed,” explains Paolo Taglioli, general manager of Assoidroelettrica, the trade association that represents 427 operators, about 40 percent of the companies in the sector by energy produced. “We can invent anything, but if it doesn’t rain or snow we’re powerless.”

According to the latest data published by Terna, the operator that manages the electricity transmission grids, in Italy there are 4,654 hydroelectric plants for a total power of 21.7 gigawatts, which correspond to approximately 40 per cent of the power of all renewable sources in Italy.

The principle of production of hydroelectric energy has always been the same since the end of the nineteenth century, when the first plants were built in Lombardy: the Alps and partly the Apennines guarantee the slopes necessary to operate the high-productivity plants which for this reason they are found predominantly in the Northern regions. Until the sixties of the twentieth century there was a notable growth both in the number of power plants built and in the quantity of energy produced. After the Vajont disaster, production increases were modest and in recent years, despite the need to find clean energy sources and alternatives to fossil fuels, there has been no significant growth.

In terms of energy produced, in 2020 hydroelectricity reached 49.4 terawatt hours, 17.6 per cent of the national needs from 280.5 terawatt hours, up 2.8 per cent compared to 2019. The rest of production 57.6 per cent was guaranteed by thermoelectric plants powered by non-renewable sources and 24.7 per cent by wind, geothermal, photovoltaic and biomass. The share of hydroelectricity could drop in 2022 if this extraordinary drought continues.

Apart from some light rain that arrived in the North West in recent days, especially in Piedmont, the situation has remained largely the same since the beginning of the year: the Atlantic flows that usually lead to disturbances towards the Mediterranean Sea have been blocked by persistent anomalous anticyclones, areas of high pressure, generally associated with good weather. Compared to February, in the last two weeks the temperatures have dropped in most of the Italian regions, but no precipitation has arrived except in the South, albeit rather limited.

The anomaly aggravated an already rather critical situation due to the months of October and November, which were very dry compared to usual. “It is rightly asked whether significant rains will arrive in the north, at least in the medium term. Unfortunately, the answer is always the same: no “, he wrote Giulio Betti, meteorologist of the National Research Council (CNR) and AMPRO, the association of professional meteorologists. «As assumed, March did not and probably will not make a contribution. The situation is objectively difficult ».

In the last meeting of the permanent observatory on water crises organized last week by the Po River district authority, some data unequivocal: the hydrometric records, that is the measurements of the water level of the great river that crosses the Northern regions, have reached the lowest altitudes of the last thirty years. The worst situation was reported in Piacenza, where the indicators stopped at an altitude of -0.49 meters for 293 cubic meters per second, while in Pontelagoscuro, in the province of Ferrara, the water reached -5.88 meters with 639 cubic meters per second. Historical lows were also recorded in Boretto, in the province of Reggio Emilia, and Borgoforte, in the province of Mantua.

According to Arpa Lombardia, the regional environmental protection agency of one of the regions with the most hydroelectric plants, at the end of February the water reserves of the region, consisting of the water contained in large lakes and artificial reservoirs, era 53.5 per cent less than the average for the period between 2006 and 2020.

In the northern regions, one of the places where the drought has manifested itself most evidently is the Ceresole Reale lake, in the upper Orco valley, in the province of Turin. The Piedmont Weather Center published a comparison between March 2021 and 2022 on Facebook: in the first satellite photo you can see the blue spot of the lake, in the second the water has given way to an expanse of sand. Only in the last few days, with the arrival of the first snow, the basin has turned white. To fill it, however, more substantial rainfall will be needed.

Lack of water directly affects energy production in power plants. Some are at a standstill, others have limited production to 10 percent of total power. Many other operators who have managed to keep production at least partially fear that the effects of the drought will be even more evident in the summer months. Taglioli explains that with the level of the rivers so low there will be a complicated season: «The snowfields are thin and we cannot reach autumn in these conditions. The only place in Italy where there is a good supply of water is the Apennines between Abruzzo and the Marches. We just have to hope for rain and ask the government for help. “

Assoidroelettrica will write to the Prime Minister Mario Draghi and the head of the Civil Protection Department Fabrizio Curcio to ask for the recognition of the state of natural disaster, which is essential to obtain economic support and above all to allow managers to suspend mortgage and leasing installments, the payment of the water concession fee and surcharges, of two types in the case of hydroelectric plants: the surcharge for the coastal authorities and that of the mountain catchment basins, consortia of municipalities more known with the acronym BIM.

The association of managers also asked the government to review the levy on extra profits announced by the government at the end of January to reduce the cost of bills for families, included in an amendment to the Sostegni ter decree, later modified and included in the Anti-fraud decree. The new rules provide for a double compensation mechanism on the price of electricity for power plants exceeding 20 kilowatts which do not access the incentives and which were opened before 2010.

The hydroelectric plant in Pizzighettone, in the province of Cremona (ANSA / RAFFAELE RASTELLI)

In essence, the decree provides that those who manage hydroelectric plants, and in general plants that use renewable energy, will not be able to earn from the change in the market price. The double compensation will be administered by the GSE, the electricity services operator who will be responsible for calculating the difference between the current market prices and the average selling price of each operator from the start-up of the plants until the end of 2021. If the prices are lower than the historical average, the GSE will pay the difference to the managers. If the prices are higher, however, the managers will have to pay the difference to the GSE.

The problem, the operators explain, is that the price of electricity has risen since the end of last year, and therefore almost all companies will have to pay: according to estimates of the State General Accounting Office, the compensation mechanism could make the State collect 1.5 billion in extra profits. Assoidroelettrica has estimated a 70 percent reduction in revenues. “I wrote to Draghi to explain our situation: with the price of energy rising, those who produce renewable energy should be supported, not penalized,” says Taglioli. “Energy-intensive companies are able to find other ways to compensate for the losses, even if we want to, we can’t.”