Hills filled with wild olive trees and Mediterranean bush surround the school complex of Borutta, a small town nestled in the northern hills of the Italian island of Sardinia. Atop the red tiles of the roof, three long lines of photovoltaic solar panels rest, shining under the sun. The panels produce 25 kilowatt-hours, enough to feed the energy needs of the building, which today functions as a social center, library, gym, and events location for all residents of Borutta.
The panels were installed just three years ago, part of a larger initiative which gave a new life to the empty primary school. The building hosted its last class in 1993—there were not enough kids to keep the school open any longer. Only 285 people inhabit the town today, down from over 700 a century ago. While many Italian towns have already lost all their inhabitants due to internal migration and an aging population, Borutta is trying to show that their town can be given new life by reigniting its stagnant local economy with a long-term strategy. The town’s administration set out to create its energy community, a ‘Comunità Energetica,’ to make their own renewable energy and make it available for free to all its citizens. The solar panels mounted on the school’s roof are part of the project that might lead the small Sardinian town towards an unexpected re-birth.
Borutta is located within ancient volcanoes, the ruins of Nuraghi—conical structures built around 1,500 B.C. by the Nuragic civilization—and Romanesque churches. A few dozen kilometers from the beaches of Sardinia residents’ cellars are filled with local pecorino cheese, cured meat, and organic produce. There is a church, a monastery with a handful of Benedectine monks who can spare a room for visitors, a pharmacy, a cafè, and a social club where elders meet to chat at night. Life is slow in Borutta, but it doesn’t miss a beat.
Throughout the 20th century, small Italian agricultural towns saw their population decrease as more people moved to fast-growing Northern Italian cities where the demand for labor grew with the arrival of new engineering and automotive industries. Larger cities gave a glimpse of hope to farmers who wanted to be part of the country’s ‘economic boom’. Those who stayed behind grew old, and towns soon turned to ghosts.
There are more than 6,000 abandoned towns in Italy, and those that are surviving have experienced a 60% decrease in population in the past 40 years. Borutta, together with other 30 towns of Sardinia, will be uninhabited by 2080, doomed by a migration process thought to be irreversible.
But Borutta’s administration was not prepared to give up and in 2012 embarked on a quest to avoid oblivion. While other towns tried to attract people by selling abandoned houses for a symbolic $1 payment, Borutta bet on the future: the community set out to become energy-independent by generating renewable energy to revive its town.
First, the town’s administration started exploring ways to use renewable energy to bring economic value to their town. They imagined a renewable energy production system powered by solar panels that could fulfil the energy needs of its residents and contribute excess energy to the national grid. The idea followed the national plan called Piano d’Azione per l’Energia Sostenibile (PAES), regulated by the European Union, that supports communities to become energy-independent in order to reduce overall fossil fuel consumption.
Silvano Quirico Salvatore Arru has been the mayor of Borutta since 2011. He was born in Sassari, the second-largest city on the island with over 127,000 inhabitants, but 20 years ago, he made the unusual decision to move away from the city to Borutta. He immediately fell in love with his new home and began thinking of ways to revive it.
“This town has a history that dates back millennia. If this town dies, its history and culture will go with it,” Arru said.
However, bureaucracy slowed down Borutta’s aspirations. Only in 2020—thanks to the Milleproroghe’s Italian government decree that recognized the juridical entity of energetic communities and regulated them—the project got the first green light. Borutta was going to build a 1.2 Megawatt solar energy farm on two hectares right outside town.
“In this way, every inhabitant of Borutta will own part of the energetic community, and by consuming that energy produced, we’ll have a significant economic advantage,” Arru said.
According to him, every citizen of Borutta will save between 3,000 and 4,000 euros a year, a significant slice of an average 10,800 euros yearly Italian household budget. Using solar energy for lighting, heating systems, cooking, warming water, and many other activities that require power, families will be relieved of a substantial economic burden.
In the meantime, during the years while the project was stalled, the municipality of Borutta began its green conversion installing solar panels on all public buildings—school, museum, library, retirement home, street lights and public electric bikes. Every year for the past ten years, the town’s administration put aside money until they saved the 1,500,000 euros they needed to build the solar farm. Arru said that the plant should have already been working by now, but the pandemic slowed down the project and delayed the opening date. If the pandemic allows for it, the solar farm should be active by October 2021.
Two years ago, Giovanna Demartis, a 44-year-old tour guide, decided to move back to her mother’s house in Borutta with her husband. She used to live and work in the coastal city of Alghero, but the appeal of Borutta’s quieter and less expensive life was too appealing to resist.
“We won’t have to pay for electricity anymore, and this is a great incentive to repopulate Borutta,” she told me excitedly. “I saw that other people are already coming back to their parents’ abandoned home.”
According to Arru, the pandemic showed how tough life can be in a city during an economic downturn. When you have no job, bills to pay, and a family to support, any financial incentive is welcome, especially to young couples trying to start a life together.
“With the money you save from electricity bills, you can think of paying a mortgage to buy a house,” Arru said, adding that homes in Borutta are incredibly cheap—less than 10,000 euros for a place before refurbishing. Furthermore, a governmental Ecobonus would pay 110% of the renovation costs to make the house energetically efficient.
But the town is now missing some services. Over the years, commercial activities have closed, and Borutta doesn’t have a supermarket anymore: people have to drive two kilometers to the nearest supermarket to buy their groceries.
“This project [the energetic community] will have a positive spillover effect on the rest of the community, on commercial activities and on nearby towns,” said Costanzo Demartis, a 45-year-old farmer who lives in Borutta. “If somebody has cash, they can treat themselves by buying meat and maybe also a bottle of wine.”
The farmer hopes that the grid will eventually reach his 14-hectare farm, where he raises pigs and cultivates grapes and olives. “Energy independence could be crucial for those who work in agriculture. Irrigation systems consume lots of energy,” the farmer said.
The news that Borutta will soon be energy-independent spread around Italy, and the mayor is now receiving requests from people interested in moving to town. Arru hopes that Borutta will become a gastronomic destination that will support the community of small local farmers in Borutta.
“In our small town, quality of life is great because we live in a pristine territory,” Arru said. Once the solar farm is up and running, Arru’s goal is to buy the infrastructure that distributes electricity around town because its usage still accounts for part of the electricity bill. He said it would take up to two years for the Comunità Energetica to acquire the electric grid.
“I believe that instead of living an anonymous life in the suburbs of a big city, it’s better to live as a protagonist in a small town,” Arru said.