Power Plants: Energy Production and Safety in Italy

December 12, 2023

Power plants are fundamental facilities for the production of electricity. In Italy there are several types of plants that exploit different energy sources, both renewable and fossil. The total electricity production in our country in 2020 was about 275 TWh.

Most of the electricity produced in Italy, about 60%, comes from natural gas thermoelectric plants. These are facilities that exploit the heat generated by the combustion of gas to produce steam and activate the turbines connected to the electric generators. Gas power plants have the advantage of being cleaner and less polluting compared to coal or oil ones. Also, they can be switched on and off quickly to adapt to the demands of the electric grid.

In second place for electricity production are hydroelectric power plants, which harness the potential energy of water in reservoirs and rivers. In Italy they are widespread especially in the North, where the major water resources are located.

In 2020 they produced about 16% of the total electricity. This is a clean and renewable source, but its production depends on weather conditions and the amount of water available.

Renewable energy power plants such as solar and wind are also gaining ground in Italy. In particular, in recent years, large investments have been made in photovoltaic and wind power plants, also encouraged by state incentives. In 2020 they produced about 9% and 6% respectively of the national electricity demand. A further growth of these technologies is expected in the coming years.

Finally, a small share of electricity comes from geothermal power plants, which exploit the Earth’s heat, and from biomass. Overall, renewables now cover more than one third of Italy’s electricity needs.

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Power plants in Italy: main operators

The production and management of power plants in Italy is handled by several operators. The main one is Enel, which controls about half of the total installed capacity. It manages plants of all kinds: hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, photovoltaic, biomass and above all natural gas ones.

Other major producers are Edison, A2A, Eni, E.ON and several regional utilities such as A2A in Lombardy, Iren in Piedmont, Acea in Lazio, Agsm Verona. In addition to these companies, there are hundreds of small producers that manage medium-small renewable energy plants.

In general, electricity production in Italy is entrusted for about 70% to former municipal companies (multi-utilities) and for the remaining part (30%) to companies with mixed public-private participation. The Electricity and Gas Authority carries out regulatory and control functions in the sector.

Safety of power plants: monitoring and maintenance

As strategic infrastructures for the country, the safety of power plants is a fundamental aspect that operators pay maximum attention to. The plants are constantly monitored remotely from centralized control rooms, where all data on operating parameters arrive.

In addition, plants undergo regular inspections and preventive maintenance interventions, to identify and resolve any anomalies before they can cause failures or malfunctions. Checks take place both at the level of individual components and the system as a whole.

Particular attention is paid to structural safety, with periodic checks of all structures, and to protection against possible external events, natural or man-made, that could compromise the integrity of the systems. Fire protection plans, intrusion protection systems, lightning protections are provided.

Finally, the plant’s control and protection systems intervene automatically in the event of anomalies to bring the system safely, for example through rapid shutdowns or emergency stops. Continuous staff training is another key factor in managing safety properly.

Regulations on power plant safety

The construction and operation of electricity generation plants in Italy must comply with specific technical safety and environmental protection regulations.

The main regulatory references are:

  • DPR 547/55: accident prevention in the workplace
  • Legislative Decree 624/96: safety and health of workers in extractive industries
  • Legislative Decree 81/08: health and safety protection in workplaces
  • Legislative Decree 105/2015: control of major accident hazards involving dangerous substances
  • CEI 0-16 Standard: technical reference rule for the connection of active and passive users to electrical networks
  • Single Environmental Authorization: contains environmental protection requirements
  • In addition, plants are subject to stringent controls by bodies such as ISPRA, ARPA and ASL to verify compliance with regulations and identify potential risks.

Operators must carry out periodic risk assessments, considering both possible internal and external events, natural events, human errors, malicious acts and take all the necessary technical and organizational measures to prevent and mitigate them.

Types of power plants in Italy

Here is an overview of the different types of electricity generation plants present in Italy:

Thermoelectric power plants


They exploit the energy released by the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) to produce steam and drive the turbines. They are divided into combined cycle plants, gas turbines, and traditional units. Natural gas power plants are widespread.

Hydroelectric power plants


They harness the potential energy of water to drive the turbines connected to the generators. They can be dam, reservoir, or run-of-river plants if they directly exploit the flow of rivers. Widespread especially in the North.

Geothermal power plants


They exploit the earth’s heat extracted from underground steam or superheated water reservoirs. The geothermal energy then drives turbines for electricity generation. Mainly present in Tuscany.

Wind power plants


They harness the kinetic energy of the wind, through the wind turbine blades that drive the generators to produce electricity. Experiencing strong growth in Italy in recent years.

Photovoltaic power plants


They exploit solar energy through photovoltaic panels to convert sunlight into electricity. Significant diffusion in recent years thanks to incentives.

Biomass power plants


They exploit energy obtained from the combustion of biomass such as agricultural waste, pomace, pruning, organic waste. This technology is spreading, encouraged by the Energy Account.

Cogeneration plants


They produce both electricity and thermal energy to be used for heating or industrial processes. Widespread in industrial facilities.

Seismic safety of power plants


Given the frequent seismicity of the Italian territory, plants must comply with stringent anti-seismic regulations to reduce the risk of structural damage in the event of earthquakes.

Already in the design and construction phase, accurate structural calculations are required to size the structures so as to withstand the seismic accelerations of the area.

Advanced engineering techniques, special materials, anti-seismic joints, seismic isolation systems are used. Static and dynamic checks are performed on the seismic response.

Special arrangements for elements such as turbines, generators, pipes, tanks. Structural monitoring systems.

Predictive maintenance to identify in advance any deterioration that can reduce seismic resistance over time.

Earthquake emergency management training for personnel. Rapid plant safety shutdown procedures in the event of a major seismic event.

Accurate seismic design and the adoption of high engineering standards are fundamental to ensure the integrity of power plants in the event of earthquakes, rather frequent events in our country.

Conclusions

Power plants play a key role in energy production and the security of the national electricity system. In Italy there is a diversified fleet of plants for sources and technologies, with a prevalence of natural gas power plants and a growing share of renewables.

Safety management is a central element for industry players, both for structural and system aspects. The regulations in force, stringent controls and the best technologies available minimize risks and ensure plant operability.

Protection from external events such as earthquakes, quite frequent in the Italian territory, is also fundamental through careful seismic design and adoption of isolation systems.

Looking to the future, the goal is to further develop renewables, to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and improve the environmental sustainability of national electricity production. At the same time, operators will have to continue to guarantee the highest safety and reliability standards of the system.

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