Electricity in Italy already had a long history when, on December 6 1962, the Italian Parliament passed the law establishing Ente Nazionale per l’Energia Elettrica (Enel). This merged under a single name almost all the country’s generation, transmission and distribution activities. But the challenge for the new organization was decidedly harder than those faced until then by the numerous private and public companies which had locally managed electricity in Italy since the end of the 19th century. Indeed, Enel was asked to bring about a new unification of Italy, a century after the country’s political consolidation into a single state: the unification of access to electricity.
Unifying the country with electricity
In actual fact, when Enel was founded, it had only 13 million clients in the entire Italian peninsula. It therefore covered only part of the population, which was already over 50 million at the time. The geographical and social gaps were striking: it was mostly residents and businesses in the North that had access to electricity, accounting for 68.3 % of total clients. Only 17.3% were located in central Italy and a mere 14.4% in southern Italy and the islands. The country’s economic boom, which ramped up GDP by a record 6.3% a year from 1958 to 1963, had not been matched by a similarly rapid expansion of electrification. With 10,000 MW of installed power and 48 billion kWh generated, in the early 1960s Italy ranked only ninth among European countries in terms of per capita electricity consumption.
However, the need for electricity was growing rapidly, at a rate of 10% a year. The rising demand for energy reflected the needs of a country undergoing transformation: it was turning into a consumer society and buying up household appliances. But this demand also expressed the needs of industry, which was in full development, as well as those of rural areas, in an economy where the agricultural sector still played a crucial role. At the time, 1.2 million homes in rural areas were still without electricity.
To finally bring electricity to the whole country, to support economic growth, and to bridge the gaps between North and South, and between urban and rural areas: this was the undertaking Italy asked of Enel with the 1962 law. The challenge was both technical and organizational.
A network in need of innovation
On the energy production front, new power plants were needed. In its first ten years of activity, Enel invested almost 4,500 billion lire (a sum equivalent to approximately 56 billion euros today) in doubling the production capacity it had inherited from the companies it had taken over.
However, the main investments, efforts and innovations were actually focused on the network. Standards and technologies had to be aligned in order to increase distribution efficiency: from the more than 200 companies acquired during the nationalization process, Enel had inherited plants with different standards and technologies, with more than 30 voltage classes and over 10,000 different types of equipment. The company began to create a truly national high-voltage grid for long-distance energy transport, by building (starting in 1968) the 380-kV connection between Florence and Rome – the first bridge between the high-voltage system of central-northern Italy and the network in the South. Information technology supported the process, with the introduction of automatic design for high-voltage lines and, by the end of the decade, Enel was able to accelerate the expansion of the network.
New connections were created to reach people who were still cut off from electricity, or could not rely on a sufficiently stable supply. In the second half of the 1960s, for example, submarine (i.e., underwater) cable connections were set up between Italy’s mainland electricity grid and the islands. For smaller islands such as Elba and Ischia, which had depended on their own power plants until then, having enough energy enabled them to handle the development of tourism, and the subsequent seasonal variations in demand. For a large island region like Sardinia, which already had many thermal and hydroelectric plants, but was reached by the first power line through Corsica in 1967, the advantages of the submarine cable traveled in both directions. The island protected itself from demand peaks thanks to imported energy, but, when necessary, it could also export the production surplus to the mainland and Corsica. Therefore, investments did not only increase production, but also allowed for more efficient and flexible distribution, with a new network model that was capable of managing demand peaks. The challenge was similar to the one we face today, with the integration of renewable sources into the grid.
The decade of electrification
By the early 1970s, after a decade of activity, Enel had almost doubled the number of its clients, totaling 26 million. Electricity had reached over half a million homes in rural areas that had still been isolated in the early 1960s. The country’s degree of electrification reached 99%.
In ten years, Enel accomplished the feat of giving Italy a modern integrated electricity network, democratizing access to the lifeblood of development. It was an undertaking that was similar to the one we face today. As in the 1960s, the use of electricity is now destined to grow and change rapidly. Technologies must continue to evolve, by introducing new forms of generation – this time, from renewable sources – and adapting the distribution network to them. This process makes use of smart meters and network components which are designed for a new consumption model that requires efficiency and flexibility. In this way, electricity can always be available where it is needed, when it is needed, and without waste.
Once again, the challenge is to bring electricity where it is still unavailable, or insufficient. Today, that means reaching millions of Italians. Reaching entire fields of the economy that have mostly relied on other forms of energy until now – such as transportation, to give just one example. And reaching areas of the world and people – 770 million, according to IEA 2021 data, three quarters of whom are in Africa. As with the Italian population in the 1950s and 1960s, they are still waiting to gain access to electricity as a vector of emancipation and development for families, businesses and communities.