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Compatibility between photovoltaics and land use: new challenge for the energy transition

In Italy, the debate on the compatibility between energy production from renewable sources and the problem of land consumption due to the increased occupation of agricultural  land by wind and photovoltaic power plants is becoming increasingly relevant.

 Italy, therefore, faces a major challenge to reduce emissions by 55 per cent by 2030 and increase energy production from renewables to 30 per cent, thus reaching the goals of the National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan.  The growth of renewable energies in the coming decades will be driven mainly by photovoltaics, and the new photovoltaic power to be installed on average each year from 2019 to 2030 will have to grow about 10 times. It is important that this growth, however,  does not lead to  new land occupation. According to the  Soil Consumption Report 2021 by Ispra (Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research) 179 hectares of soil were  “consumed” in 2020   by the installation of new ground-mounted photovoltaic plants, and the National System for Environmental Protection in  Italy found that photovoltaic plants currently occupy around 17,560 hectares of soil. Experts estimate that, for the installation of a further 75 GW between now and 2030, and using values similar to the current ones as average occupancy coefficients,  an area of more than 50,000 hectares of new land consumed could be calculated.

Soil consumption therefore runs counter to the goals of sustainable development and ecological transition and could have negative consequences on the environment and quality of life, as it reduces the availability of natural resources, biodiversity, ecosystem services and resilience to climate change.

The European Soil Strategy 2030 also calls for the re-use of land that has already been consumed or sealed and, therefore, for no new soil consumption, but to focus new requirements on what has already been consumed in the past, limiting the impact on the landscape and the loss of agricultural areas as much as possible.

According to the experts, in order to  combine the objectives of energy transition with those of protecting the soil and natural resources, maintaining agricultural production and preserving the landscape, new plants should be built on already  degraded or polluted land, on existing buildings, and infrastructure, car parks or productive and commercial areas, brownfield sites and other already consumed areas should be used. To this end,  it is important that institutions adopt precise urban and spatial planning that takes into account both energy and environmental needs. In the region of Campania, in the south of Italy, a discussion is underway between farms and photovoltaic plant companies to promote a feasibility study on the possibility of installing photovoltaic plants on restored land in order to create a general modus operandi from which to implement a virtuous system of photovoltaic energy production without consuming agricultural land and thus preserving the soil.