News Nuggets: The Mob Goes Green

The Mob Goes Green

Italian businessman Vito Nicastri is nicknamed the “Lord of the Wind” for all his investments in renewable energy projects in southern Italy. Now he’s also known as a mobster. The Italian government seized $1.1 billion worth of property from Nicastri this week, including 43 wind and solar companies, which anti-mafia investigators say were created to launder mob money.

In the U.S., the connection between mobsters and wind turbines seems tenuous. But in Italy it may make perfect sense. Hefty government subsidies for wind farm construction, a low regulatory burden, and the fact that the nation’s best wind conditions are found in southern Italy, a mafia stronghold, help explain the connection, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

“This is a sector in which money can easily be laundered,” said Arturo de Felice, director of Italy’s anti-mafia agency.

Investigators also seized 98 pieces of real estate, 66 bank accounts and other investment funds. Much of Nicastri’s support allegedly came from Matteo Messina Denaro, whom many believe to be the current boss of the Cosa Nostra criminal organization.

Texas and the Army Go Green, Too

Speaking of green energy initiatives that might surprise outsiders, the U.S. Defense Department announced this week that it will begin construction of its largest renewable energy project ever. The 20-megawatt solar farm will power the division headquarters and the majority of the eastern sector of Fort Bliss, the Texas military base that sprawls for 1,700 square miles.

The military’s efforts to wean itself off fossil fuels comes as no surprise to people in cleantech industries. The Defense Department is known for its major investments in solar and biofuels, and it has announced a goal that Fort Bliss will someday generate all the energy it uses.

Fort Bliss already has two other solar arrays generating a combined 14.8 megawatts, and is planning to build a waste-to-energy plant with the city of El Paso.

“The solar farm, along with our environment campaign plan, are both part of a larger effort to make Fort Bliss the most fit, most healthy, most resilient community in America that is environmentally sound and is best at preparing soldiers and units for combat,” Army Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard said in a press release.

EPA Backs Down, a Little, on Cellulosic Fuel

The U.S. EPA announced this week that it will reconsider its controversial renewable fuels rule. In a motion to the federal court of appeals for the Columbia Circuit, the agency signaled that the review could result in significant changes, or at least a better description of its process.

It is “unlikely that upon reevaluation EPA would simply re-affirm the 2011 cellulosic biofuel standard without further analysis or explanation,” the agency said in its brief.

The apparent capitulation comes two months after the agency lost in court. A lawsuit brought by the American Petroleum Institute challenged the EPA’s rule that required oil producers to blend 6.6 million gallons of cellulosic biofuels into traditional fossil fuels by 2011. The requirement was widely viewed as bureaucratic overstepping, especially since commercial-scale biofuels production has remained miniscule since the rule was first unveiled in 2010.

In their decision, the three-judge panel wrote that the EPA’s rule made little sense, punishing one industry for the failures of another. “Do a good job, cellulosic fuel producers,” the ruling said. “If you fail, we’ll fine your customers.”

Nepal’s Renewables Will Be Micro, Off-Grid

The Nepalese government is going micro. A new program will give one-time grants of $29 apiece to help single women, the poor, indigenous groups and people affected by conflict or disaster to build small renewable energy projects.

The plan is to extend the small grants to solar and micro-hydro projects in rural areas that are not easily accessed by roads, and biogas in communities located deep in mountainous areas. The program also will encourage private institutions to make their own micro loans backed by a government fund.

The policy is partly a capitulation, recognizing that capital-intensive projects to electrify the country’s vast rural areas—as the Tennessee Valley Authority did in the U.S.—is not a viable option in a rugged country where the average worker earns around $742 a year.

“Renewable, off-grid energy solutions [are] the only realistic way to provide energy in parts of the country,” according to the government’s five-year rural electricity plan.

Green Captcha? You Betcha!

The Boston area is known for its high-tech research almost as much as its beguiling local dialect. The second annual Boston Cleanweb Hackathon captured some of both with “Green Captcha,” a sign-in technology that uses open government data to tailor local environmental information to users’ locations to promote awareness of environmental issues.

Green Captcha won the audience choice award, not a bad feat in an audience that included BlackRock Capital partner Bob Day, who was one of the judges. Another app called BulbTrip, dubbed the “Zappos for residential lighting,” won the $6,000 grand prize.

Higher Ed for High-Tech Batteries
For everyone frustrated by the slow progress made in recent years on developing more efficient, lightweight and affordable electricity storage technologies, San Jose State University announced it will offer its first “battery university” this summer.

The classes will focus on technological challenges, of course, but also on new business models and practices that could ease adoption of next-generation batteries in consumer products from laptops to cars.

The curriculum is being developed by over 100 experts from the battery sector. Many work for the 40 or so battery companies in California, which are finding it difficult to recruit enough workers to compete with their Asian rivals.

“Start-up companies with new ideas are coming on board, but there is no workforce to get these ideas to completion,” said Venkat Srinivasan, head of energy storage projects at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.


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