The Twilight Of Italy's Lighthouse Keepers

Italy will still need lighthouses. But with new technology, lighthouse keepers are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Already just 62 of the country's 161 "faros" have actual human operators.

Lighthouse in Vieste, Italy (Roby Ferrari)
Lighthouse in Vieste, Italy (Roby Ferrari)
Fabio Pozzo

There is never a shortage of people writing to the Italian Defense Ministry applying for a position as a lighthouse keeper. For some, this is a dream job with the benefits of freedom, life far from the daily routine and a chance to live surrounded by the ebbs and flows of the natural world. Truth is, though, that within 10 or 15 years this profession will be extinct.

Along the 8,000-kilometer Italian coastline, there are just 161 lighthouses in the strict sense of the word, meaning facilities that emit a ray of light visible for at least 15,000 nautical miles. Of these, only 62 have an actual human keeper. There are also 668 navigation lights and 1,370 light that keep watch from the Italian coast. Indeed, by night, the Italian coast looks like a Christmas tree enlightened with thousands of bright spots to show the safest routes for the sailors.

Originally, instead of lighthouses, there were simple bonfires, which slowly evolved into towers. Around 300 BC the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria were among the wonders of the world. The current connotation of today's lighthouses -- including the Statue of Liberty in New York – was first developed in the 18th century. In the following century, the French engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel was the first to construct a special type of lens -- now called a Fresnel lens -- as a substitute for mirrors in lighthouses.

The oldest Italian lighthouse is the so called Lanterna (lantern) in Genoa. It was built in 1326 and rebuilt in 1543. Previously, the oldest Italian lighthouse was in Livorno, which dated back to 1304. But in 1944, it was destroyed by the German army.

Lighthouses have always been an inspiration for writers, painters, and photographers. They are going to switch off soon, though. In the UK, the General Lighthouse Authority (GLA) is planning to shut down many of the coastal lamps, which have been largely made obsolete by GPS and electronic and satellite systems.

Still, some say traditional lighthouses must be preserved – and not only for poetic reasons. "Lighthouses must be kept working," says Adm. Alberto Gauzolino, who is in charge of the Lighthouse Authority of the Italian Navy. "GPS works for high-sea navigation. But along the coast, the commander needs to have everything under control, and a lighthouse is irreplaceable."

The first Italian Lighthouse Authority was created in 1868 by the first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II. Still, in 1910 a British document read that "lighthouses and light signals along the Italian coast are not reliable at all." Things improved when the Navy obtained administrative control over the lighthouses.

Inevitably, perhaps, technology has largely replaced the lighthouses keepers. "Now all the lighthouses are automatic and remote-controlled. The current lighthouse keepers are technicians who intervene only when an internal junction box signals a break down," Adm. Gauzolino explains. "They are in charge of the lighthouses across an entire area. Often the lighthouses are in urban centers. There are no more lighthouse keepers in remote places."

The last of the lighthouse keepers are not likely to be replaced. The Defense Ministry hasn't held a new national civil service exam for the job since 1994. The current 332 civil lighthouse keepers and 58 military lighthouse keepers have their positions guaranteed thanks to internal retraining courses. But there is virtually no hope for others who still see it as the ultimate dream job of seaside isolation. "We receive dozens of letters every year, often from professionals who dream of a new career without the stress," says Gauzolino.

Read the original article in Italian

Photo - Roby Ferrari

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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