Renewable Energy Initiatives Spur Land-Use Debates in Italy


At Gianfranco Fino’s new winery just outside Manduria, Italy, Simona Fino stared at her Mac in disbelief. A local news story announced that an energy company proposed to build 19 wind turbines as tall as 337 feet around the vineyards, and local politicians had seemingly failed to take notice.

“How can they go ahead with this destruction?” she says.

The news story evoked old shadows and infuriated Fino, who led a successful campaign against a proposed wind farm near Manduria vineyards in 2013.

“When you love all this, it’s unreal to think someone could disrupt its beauty and peace,” she says, referring to the verdant vineyards of Primitivo that stretch throughout the region.

What she saw on her screen was a drop in the ocean. As Italy attempts to decarbonize its economy, dozens of solar farms and thousands of wind turbines have been proposed in rural areas, including well-known wine regions.

Ten wind farms, totaling 146 wind turbines as tall as 656 feet, have been proposed and are pending approval in and near four well-known wine production areas in Southern Italy: Manduria, Salice Salentino, Brindisi and Squinzano.

The projects anger rural communities and winemakers, who fear they might fuel competition for land. Some believe not enough attention is being paid to the choice of the location for new renewable energy farms, and call the projects everything from “colonization” to “land grabs” to “invasion.” Others threaten an “all-out war.”

“If they do something like this, they’ll prompt an endless battle,” says Fino.

Aerial view of vineyards near the Ionian sea in Salento, near Manduria / Getty
Aerial view of vineyards near the Ionian sea in Salento, near Manduria / Getty

Several factors drive the new proposed projects. Like all European Union countries, Italy has pledged for at least 30% of the energy it uses to come from renewable sources by 2030. The country trails most of the EU in wind energy production, with 7% of its energy demand met by wind farms. According to the local press, this is due to the fastidious bureaucratic process to green-light a project and local opposition.

But local politicians say that the process is heavily centralized and local authorities lack efficient tools to regulate the building of new plants and involve the community.

“At the national level, the vision is to commit to renewable energy investments,” says Fabio Tarantino, a local politician who opposes the proposed location of the wind farms. “But there has been little on-the-ground planning, and so the choice of the location is left to the initiative of private companies.”

Manduria and Salice Salentino have been selected because they could help companies maximize profits, according to local campaigners. They are close to a point of access to the grid, and with a few exceptions, arable land is cheap, even more so after an incurable blight known as Xylella fastidiosa decimated the olive trees that used to dominate the landscape with the vineyards.

Most of the local opposition against the projects criticizes the proposed locations.

“We are in favor of solar and wind farms, but not in these terms, which allow them to invade agricultural land,” says Paolo Pagliaro, a local politician who has rallied with wine producers against the projects. “Fertile land was not born to farm panels and turbines,” he says, suggesting that turbines be built in unused industrial areas and solar panels on roofs.

Solar panel closeup in field in Puglia, Italy
Solar panels gaining ground in Puglia, Italy / Getty

No studies have found wind turbines to be incompatible with vineyards, although producers say the noise they generate would make it difficult to work beneath them.

Winemakers object to the projects for several reasons.

“We want to continue to live off agriculture,” says Angelo Maci, president of Cantine Due Palme and of the Consortium for the Protection of the DOC Wines of Brindisi and Squinzano. “We need land because our grape varieties have found success around the world. I don’t think the agricultural world can consent to be replaced by wind turbines and solar panels.”

Others say the projects, and especially wind turbines, some of which could be visible for miles, pose a threat to the landscape, the terroir and, in turn, tourism.

“There is a clash with the economic and cultural soul of this land,” says Mauro di Maggio, president of San Marzano Vini and of the Consortium for the Protection of Primitivo di Manduria Wines. He notes that authorities have pumped millions to foster sustainable tourism in the area and renovate masserie, old countryside estates.

“Now that Salento found a way to sustainable development, and the growth of tourism and of the interest in our agricultural products is there for everyone to see—why?”

“This isn’t California, where everything is huge,” adds Damiano Reale, of Vigneti Reale and president of the Consortium for the Protection of Salice Salentino Wines. “Producers here use little electricity. It’s an area of small-scale producers who work with their hands and travel in three-wheeled vans.”

Reale believes the size and scale of the turbines are anathema to the area’s wine businesses and culture.

Wind and solar farm in Puglia / Getty
Wind and solar farm in Puglia / Getty

“We may still be able to sell wine bottles, but we can’t take people for a tour of wind turbines,” he says.

Those in favor of these projects believe they could help phase out the local coal-fired power plant. Energy companies could also build cycle lanes or other infrastructure as compensation for local communities. Proponents also claim that tackling the climate emergency is impossible without taking up some land to build renewable energy plants.

Wine Enthusiast tried to reach out to the seven firms that proposed new wind farms between Salice Salentino, Manduria and surrounding towns to ask about the benefits of their projects. Of the three we were able to reach by telephone, all asked us to put questions into an email. None of them replied.

After a period of public consultation, a government committee is assessing the environmental impact of the proposed projects before deciding whether to grant approval. Local politicians and producers expect the decision to come in the next few months and be followed by lengthy legal battles.

But the global and Europe-wide urge to shift to renewable energy leaves producers skeptical of their chances of winning in the long term.

“I have no faith [we’ll win],” says Reale. “We’re caught in something over which we have no say.”

In Manduria, Fino was discouraged to hear that new wind turbines are being considered eight years after her campaign.

“I have no kids; I could hole up in a garage and not care,” she says. “I’m fighting to create and give value to all this.”