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Italy’s ‘illogical’ agricultural solar ban contains ‘contradictions’, lawyer says

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The decree will pass into law after a 60-day consultation period. Image: Enel Green Power.

The Italian government’s proposed decree banning solar PV developments on agricultural land contains “contradictions” and will need to be clarified significantly, according to Ginevra Biadico, managing counsel at international law firm Dentons.

Earlier this month, the agriculture minister, Francesco Lollobrigida, announced a plan to “put an end to the wild installation of ground-mounted photovoltaics” on land classified as agricultural land. The move was met with predictable scorn by the country’s solar trade body, Italia Solare, which warned that it could cost Italy €60 billion (US$65 billion) in lost tax revenues and private investment that could have been generated by the projects likely to be banned.

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However, the industry is still waiting for the conversion of the announced policy into law. Cristiano Spillati, managing director of Italian renewables developer Limes, tells PV Tech Premium that the current draft is “not a very well-written article because it opens up a lot of interpretations.”

Biadico, a lawyer specialising in energy and infrastructure, tells us that the 60-day discussion and clarification period before the law emerges is “a very delicate and crucial moment…because if the lenders perceive that there is still uncertainty in the regulatory framework, then it will be difficult for Italy to achieve its national and European solar targets.”

Defining ‘agrivoltaics’

One of the questions surrounding the announcement is the exact definition of “agrivoltaics” under law. It does not seem that the proposal will ban agrivoltaics, but determining what it does ban requires defining exactly what different forms of agrivoltaics are.

Within the industry, in a non-legal setting, agrivoltaics or agriPV generally refers to the practice of pairing solar PV and agricultural production on the same land. It can apply to a variety of different configurations and situations with varying ratios between agricultural and electrical production on the land. Significantly, it refers to dual-use of the land between the two activities—how that dual-use is divided up is what needs to be defined.

Both Spillati and Biadico talk about the important difference between “advanced” and “standard” agrivoltaics. Advanced agrivoltaics is definitely exempt from any ban “for sure”, Biadico says. “These systems are those where the cultivation or farming activity is ensured”.

Effectively, advanced agrivoltaics guarantees that all possible land cultivation is allowed to continue and is regularly monitored for productivity, soil quality, and a host of other factors. This can be done with vertical, fence-like panels, panels raised high up off the ground—“approximately four metres,” according to Spillati—or other innovative configurations. Crucially, farming is effectively prioritised, and solar installations have to be adapted to fit around it.

The European Commission approved a €1.7 billion scheme to support the development of around 1GW of advanced agrivoltaics in Italy last November, which was set in motion by the Ministry of the Environment and Energy Security (MASE) in February.

“The query is over standard agrivoltaics,” Biadico says; “a situation where some part of the project land is dedicated to traditional ground-mount PV and another area is dedicated to agricultural activities. Or a photovoltaic plant where cultivation activities are carried out between the strings of the panels.”

She says that the differentiation between the two needs to be made clear in the discussion process and that the impact of a ban would change significantly depending on the outcome.

“Most of the developers in Italy have been focusing on simple agrivoltaics,” she says. This is mostly because standard agrivoltaics are cheaper and easier to develop. They also require around 70% of the land to be cultivated, rather than the entirety as mandated by advanced agrivoltaics, Spillati says. Moreover, advanced projects often require more steel racking and components to raise the panels, “so in that respect, we have a capex increase and an LCOE increase – it’s not very beneficial from an electricity production perspective,” he adds.

“If [under the ban] they only allow advanced agrivoltaics, the impact will be far more significant.”

The current pipeline

Italy has been a leading market for agrivoltaics in Europe through early adoption of the technology and supportive initiatives like the Commission financing above. Spillati suggests that much of the current pipeline for solar projects in Italy may be safe from the effects of a ban.

“On one hand, you have to consider that there is around 130GW of pipeline. That is more than sufficient to cover [Italy’s] targets.” However, as discussed in a previous interview with this publication at an industry event in Lisbon, Spillati points out that many of the projects in the pipeline queue are only on paper and unlikely to come to fruition.

Regardless, he says, “there’s so much agriPV in the pipeline that I think a leading market role in Europe is still possible. Limes [his company] alone has 500MW of agriPV in our pipeline. If you multiply that for all the developers in Italy, that’s a lot of GWs of agrivoltaics.”

As ample as the pipeline may be, the declaration will need to have a cut-off point for projects already under development. Biadico says: “The decree specifies that the changes do not apply to plants whose environmental assessment began before the 16th of May or to plants whose single authorisation procedure began before the 16th.”

She continues, saying that there is a possible “contradiction” arising from the way projects are permitted in Italy. Environmental assessments happen first, followed by the single authorisation procedure; “Operators and clients are asking us ‘what about projects whose environmental procedure has begun by 16th May, but for which the single authorisation procedure has not yet started?’

“It would be a contradiction to say that only the environmental procedure is governed by the old regulations,” she continues, whilst other assessments fall under new rules.

There is even further confusion over whether the “procedures” referred to concern grid connection procedures or solely environmental and other approvals.

Other uncertainties

Biadico points out more opaque definitions in the current version of the law.  Most striking are the restrictions over land expansions and ‘permissible’ land near existing power plants.

“It is clear that revamping and repowering existing plants in agricultural areas is no longer permitted if it triggers an enlargement of the occupied areas,” she says. Repowering plants is a growing trend in the solar industry as module and balance of system technologies advance and offer higher efficiencies and return on investment. However, the new law mandates that projects in designated agricultural areas must not expand their footprint at all when repowering.

“However,” Biadico continues, “they say in the same decree that one of the suitable areas where new photovoltaic plants can be installed is in the area 500 metres from an existing industrial plant.” These “industrial plants” would include a PV installation—so, in theory, a project owner would simultaneously be unable to expand the footprint of an existing plant and allowed to build a new plant in the immediate surrounding area.

“There is something illogical in that, for sure,” she says.

Policy changes and uncertainties also don’t do much for industry and investor confidence. Biadico says that over the consultation period before the ban passes into law, the Italian Parliament “will have to consider that agrivoltaics—whether it is simple or advances—is something different” from the blanket term “ground-mounted” solar mentioned in the decree.

In some respects, it comes down to defining terms. She says: “If the concern of the agriculture ministry is land consumption, then I think they should promote agrivoltaics irrespective of whether it’s simple or advanced.”

“Agrivoltaics”, where deployed properly, refers to the dual-use of land for both farming and solar PV, so its impact on land use is minimal.

Is there a shortage of land?

Are the claims of protecting Italy’s farmland based in fact? In short, the answer seems to be no. In response to this question, Spillati provides some data, saying that the roughly 10GW of utility-scale ground-mounted solar currently deployed in Italy occupies around 0.6% of the available land.

“It’s really nothing,” he said. “In the past, before the concept of agrivoltaics started, it’s a fact that projects were built on agricultural land. The industry must admit that, and these plots of land were definitely taken from agriculture.

“But the fact is it’s a tiny, miniscule [piece of land]. Much more farmland is abandoned each year than gets occupied by PV. If you combine this with the new practice of agrivoltaics, there’s no issue.”

According to the World Bank, 41.9% of Italy’s land was usable agricultural land in 2021. Italia Solare published data last week showing that the utility-scale solar segment grew 373% in Q1 2024 but, as established by Spilleti and Italy’s long-running market leadership in the space, much of this capacity, even before the announcement of the ban, will be agrivoltaics.  

Political motivations

Given the inconsistencies and lack of clarity in the declaration, not to mention the possibility that it has a minimal effect on solar PV deployments, why is the government proposing the ban in the first place?

“It’s political,” Spillati says. “There are European elections coming up and, obviously, the votes coming from the agricultural associations are much more important than a smaller number of renewable energy professionals.”

He draws a parallel with “posters of the [Italian] Prime Minister saying ‘no to the Eco Vandals’.”

“It’s a pity…but it’s perfectly clear, just before the European elections.” Indeed, over recent months, Brussels has played host to ongoing protests from European farmers, which, according to Reuters, have pushed the EU to roll back environmental protections, limits on the use of pesticides and the imports of tariff-free grains from Ukraine.

The description from agriculture minister Lollobrigada of the “wild installation” of solar plants does seem at odds with Italy’s utility-scale market, which only recently re-emerged as a significant GW-scale force. It is also not a sentiment that seems to complement the country’s European commitments, where it has committed to 80GW of solar PV capacity by 2030 under its National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP) submitted to the EU.

Spilatti suggests that the longer-term vision and, frankly, cost of net zero and its associated technologies has lost out to a short-term vote winner, which—depending on the final version of the law – does little more than kick the can further down the road.

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