The second decade of the 21st century saw something of a Copernican Revolution for Enel, not just for its energy mix, but also for its corporate philosophy, in keeping with an irreversible change that swept through the entire energy sector. Indeed, this was the decade in which renewable sources definitively took center stage.
Initially driven by a desire to make Italy more energy independent, research into the possibilities that might be offered by what, at the time, were defined as “alternative sources” was part of the company's activities as early as the 1970s. This part was initially rather modest in terms of numbers, but it was conducted consistently and innovatively. By the turn of the century many aspects were contributing to its acceleration, from geopolitical factors to an increased awareness and understanding regarding the impact of climate change. Despite many difficulties, international targets for reducing emissions were put down in black and white: the UN’s 2009 Copenhagen Summit, for example, concluded with a commitment to limit the global average temperature increase to less than 1.5°C. Major policy decisions gradually started to change the rules of the game in the energy market, from clean energy incentives to a carbon credits market. Technology was making great strides, especially for solar and wind, energy sources that were becoming increasingly competitive. The great financial crisis of 2007-2008 also helped to entrench the idea that the economy needed to be rebuilt on new foundations, not just in terms of finance, but also in relation to the exploitation of resources.
The birth of Enel Green Power
This was a new era, one which the Enel Group decided to face by starting a new company. Enel Green Power (EGP) was established in 2008: its purpose was to bring together the many initiatives around the world and the different lines of technological research that the Group had been pursuing for decades. EGP inherited Italy’s important hydropower tradition. This renewable source has been a major part of the country's energy mix since the first half of the 20th century, and it is still its primary source of renewable energy, with an installed capacity of almost 13 GW and a production of more than 8,800 GWh. EGP also inherited decades of pioneering work in geothermal energy, such as the Larderello power plant, which has been active since 1911 and is still one of the world's most important centers for geothermal energy, with a power output of 800 MW. And of course, EGP took years of research and development in solar and wind power under its wing, and it’s now relying on these renewable technologies in order to meet the energy challenges of the future.
The newly formed EGP kicked off with major investments in wind power, with the Acquaspruzza 2 and Monterosso facilities in Molise, bringing online a total capacity of 39 MW in 2009. It also invested in solar power, with the construction of the Montalto di Castro photovoltaic power plant, which at the time was the largest in Italy and one of the largest in Europe.
As well as installing new power plants, EGP also made moves to consolidate its technological expertise regarding power generation components and systems. In 2010, 3SUN, a joint venture with Sharp and STMicroelectronics to create the largest solar panel production plant in Italy, was established in Catania, in Sicily. Today, thanks to an agreement with the European Commission signed in 2022 and an investment of €118 million, 3SUN is on track to become Europe's largest solar panel production plant by 2024, amounting to a production capacity of 3 GW per year.
A global plan
EGP became a listed company at the end of October 2010: this was in order to ensure it had the necessary resources to support its ambitious growth plan.
In Italy, over the course of the decade, the number of renewable facilities operated by EGP reached and exceeded 600, bringing total capacity to over 16 GW, approximately one-third of overall global capacity. By 2020, every single one of Italy's 7,900 municipalities had at least one renewable facility: 10 years earlier, that number was just over 350.
As production technologies were being developed and enhanced, so too were those for energy storage, which is essential for optimizing the inherently intermittent production profile of renewable sources. The first large batteries for storing energy produced by renewable facilities were installed in Italy in 2015. The first solar farm to be integrated with a storage system based on sodium nickel chloride technology was built in Catania. Furthermore, the Potenza Pietragalla plant became the first to see a storage system integrated with a pre-existing wind farm, and connected to the power grid.
Further afield, in North America, EGP collaborated with the United States Department of Energy to develop innovative facilities such as the Stillwater plant in Nevada, which combines geothermal, solar thermal and solar PV, or the Caney River wind farm in Kansas, which also saw the creation of an 18,000-hectare protected area. During these years EGP also won major bids to build new power plants in Chile, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa.
The development of these new facilities was often associated with a genuine reinvention of the local area. This is what happened in Teruel, Spain: it was once a major center for coal-fired power generation, and is currently preparing for a future as a “hybrid” hub, with the integration of solar, wind, battery systems and a green hydrogen production facility.
In just over 10 years, EGP established itself as a world leader in the renewable energy sector. By the end of 2019 it was operating facilities generating a total capacity of 46 GW (which has now already risen to 54.6). In 2021 alone, thanks to its renewable energy facilities, a total of 66 million tons of CO2 emissions were prevented from entering the atmosphere.
Our research goes on
Research and innovation remain the key drivers for the growth of renewables and the energy system in general. The Enel Group now entrusts this work to a network of Innovation Hubs and Labs located across Europe, the United States, and the Middle East, where selected startups can present their projects, develop and test technologies, and exchange ideas and knowledge: from Milan, Pisa, and Catania to Madrid, from the Silicon Valley to Boston, from Santiago de Chile to São Paulo, and right across to Tel Aviv.
In terms of the development of new technologies, EGP is also setting up experimental facilities to produce hydrogen via electrolysis, such as those in Sarroch in Sardinia, Taranto in Apulia and Gela in Sicily in collaboration with Eni, and in Carlentini (also in Sicily), where the production of hydrogen is bringing together a network of small and large companies to create a genuine supply chain, from its production to transportation, through to its marketing and sale.
The growth in renewables and the increased focus on sustainability brought about a complete transformation for the Group in 2016 when it launched Open Power, a new corporate philosophy that embraces the Group’s desire to open up access to energy for more people, to open up the energy sector to new technologies and new uses, and to open the company up to new partnerships. Participation, involvement and inclusion became the watchwords for an energy sector that must meet the Net Zero by 2050 challenge launched by the International Energy Agency. This will require renewable sources to account for 90 per cent of all the energy produced by the middle of the century. Enel will be a trailblazer in this regard too, having officially brought forward its Zero emissions commitment by 10 years, from 2050 to 2040, for all emissions, both direct and indirect.