EUROPE’S booming wind energy industry is being exploited by criminals, according to Kroll, the corporate security group.
Criminals see an opportunity to tap into billions of euros’ worth of European Union subsidies.
Organised groups linked to the Italian Mafia are among those to have infiltrated the industry, Jason Wright, senior director of Kroll’s consulting group, told The Times.
While emphasising that the overwhelming majority of European wind projects were “entirely legitimate”, he said that criminals were increasingly investing in the industry, both to qualify for subsidies and to launder profits from drug-running and other illegal activities.
Kroll, he added, was doing brisk business conducting due diligence on renewable energy projects on behalf of big banks and other potential investors.
The American-owned Kroll has detected a sharp increase since 2007 in the number of cases involving fraud and corruption in the wind energy sector – chiefly in Italy and Spain but also in Bulgaria, Romania and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe.
“Renewable energy is completely dependent on subsidies, so it is clearly an area for corruption,” Mr Wright said.
“Wind farms are a profitable way to make money because of the subsidies, and they are also a great way of laundering it.”
He added that the wind energy industry was vulnerable because projects frequently hinged on the political patronage of local officials who grant licences and access to public land.
With more than €6 billion ($8.7bn) of EU subsidies having been earmarked for renewable energy projects over a 13-year period ending in 2013, Mr Wright said that the industry’s growth in Italy had been much faster in Sicily and the south of the country than in the north – a reflection of the ease with which developers can secure licences.
Eight people in the Trapani area of western Sicily, as well as in Salerno in the southwest of the mainland, were arrested last year after an investigation by anti-Mafia magistrates into a string of wind projects.
Police in Trapani said that officials had been given bribes and luxury cars to encourage the town to invest in wind farms worth hundreds of millions of euros.
In another case, in Spain’s Canary Islands, five local officials, a mayor and two developers were accused of bribery and misappropriation of land.
Another case in Corsica involved the skimming of more than €1.5 million worth of EU subsidies for wind energy projects.
Mr Wright said that he was not aware of any similar cases in the UK, where wind farms face rigorous planning scrutiny and often are rejected. He said they were very unusual elsewhere in Northern Europe.
“The vast majority of these projects are entirely legitimate but there is clearly a minority that are fraudulent … We have seen a huge increase in the number of clients who have come to us with concerns.”
It was extremely hard, he added, to determine the degree to which criminal activity had penetrated Europe’s wind industry.
The president of the Italian National Wind Energy Association, Oreste Vigorito, was arrested last year and charged with fraud. He has not been convicted of an offence.
In Italy, there have been at least three police operations targeting the country’s wind industry, one of which was given the codename “Gone with the Wind”.
Christian Kjaer, chief executive of the European Wind Energy Association in Brussels, rejected the concerns. He said that reports of corruption in Italy were symptomatic of deep-rooted problems in the country’s construction sector and not restricted to renewable energy projects.
Mr Wright said that about 50 per cent of the renewable energy cases that the corporate investigations group undertook on behalf of clients in Madrid and Milan uncovered evidence of fraud or corruption. This compared with an average of 10-20 per cent for most Kroll projects.