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How Renewable Energy and Organic Farming Helped Revitalize a Small Italian Town

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How Renewable Energy and Organic Farming Helped Revitalize a Small Italian Town

By Laurie Guevara-​Stone

A trip to Varese Ligure, Italy, will bring you face to face with a charming town of pastel-colored houses and a plethora of restaurants serving dishes with organic porcini mushrooms and chestnuts. Stop at the bustling markets and you will see Italians who have traveled from far and wide to purchase the locally produced organic meats, cheeses, and honey. It’s a far cry from just 20 years ago, when this town in the Liguria region of northwest Italy was fading away due to a lack of jobs, no industry, decaying properties, and a lack of essential services.

At the end of the '80s, Varese Ligure, a small town (pop: 2,400) located in the Vara valley in the province of La Spezia, had gone from a population of 6,000 to 2,250. However, the mayor at the time, Maurizio Caranza, refused to give up hope for his dying town. He decided to take what others thought of as Varese Ligure’s weaknesses—geographical isolation, lack of modern industry, antiquated farming practices—and turn them into strengths. He realized the valley’s clean air and unspoiled land were assets and opportunities. What better way to capitalize on those attributes than by becoming a sustainable tourist destination through renewable energy and organic farming?

Varese Ligure, Italy.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

“We realized the only thing to do to prevent the village from dying was to protect the environment and rehabilitate the agriculture sector," Caranza told Italian news agency Adnkronos International.

The forward-thinking mayor hit on a gold mine. This was in the early 1990s, before climate change and mad cow disease became household words. Little did he know that in the following decades the organic and environmental movements would mushroom (pun intended).

Now, 20 years later, four wind turbines produce 8 gigawatt-hours of electricity per year, generating three times more electricity than the town uses. The town hall and secondary school are covered with solar photovoltaic panels, producing on site 98 percent and 62 percent of their electricity needs, respectively. The wastewater treatment plant has a 4 kW PV system and the town swimming pool is heated with solar panels. There is also a small 8 kW hydroelectric system.

Photo credit: Regional Energy Agency of Liguria

The electricity from the renewable energy systems is fed into the local grid managed by ACAM, the electric utility company in La Spezia. While ACAM manages and maintains the wind turbines, the ACAM utility and the municipality jointly own them. ACAM pays Varese Ligure about $30,000 each year for the excess electricity and also provides the town with various services as part of its payment for the electricity, such as sorted waste and landfill site management.

Wind turbines in Varese Ligure, Italy.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

To rebuild the town, Caranza asked the residents if they would be willing to repair and renovate their ancient stone houses—an image of which sits juxtaposed against a modern wind turbine on the municipality’s website—if the public administration got funding to redo the roads, sewers, aqueducts, and street lighting. Though some people were resistant at first, Caranza finally won them over, and home renovations began. While some of the funding for renovations came from the European Union, the majority of it came from the citizens themselves. A psychological factor was at work, Caranza told travel journalist Giovanna Dunmall. “If you go to someone’s house and it’s much nicer and cleaner than yours, then when you go back to your home you realize that you want to improve it, too.”

There was also a lot of education about organic farming practices, and a push for farmers to stop using chemical fertilizers. Most farmers actually couldn’t afford chemical fertilizers, so were farming organically out of necessity already, but weren’t officially certified. To get these conservative farmers to become organic certified, Caranza explained that organic products could be sold at higher prices and helped farmers get EU grants for organic farms. Now 108 organic farms supply 98 percent of town’s produce, meat, and dairy products. The Vara valley, now known as the “Organic Valley,” became Europe’s first valley to be certified ISO 14001, the international benchmark for environmental management.

One important program they started in the town in 1996 was the Environmental Education Center (CEA), which educates children of the region about organic agriculture, renewable energy, and sustainability. The CEA takes schoolchildren on tours of organic farms, dairy cooperatives, and bee keeping operations; it offers educational courses on small wind turbines, solar panels, and solar cookers; and it educates youth about energy consumption and climate change.

Varese Ligure is currently rated one of the best small towns in Italy by the Touring Club Italiano, even receiving the organization’s orange flag, awarded to small towns for excellency in tourism, hospitality, and the environment. There has been a 500-percent increase in tourists since the late 1990s, an additional $514,000 in annual tax revenues, 140 new jobs, and a stable population.

Caranza is proud of what has become of his town. “Tourism is an important sector for six months a year, local farmers produce an abundance of organic fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy products, and the village now recycles 25 percent of its refuse,” he reported to Adnkronos International. “Because the political will existed, we succeeded in arresting Varese Ligure's decline.” And more than arresting decline, with a mixture of clean energy and sustainable agriculture, they have truly transformed the community.

Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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