Sunday, June 03, 2007

Greening Up the Nervi

For this readership, it's no secret that the Vatican's gone eco-conscious of late -- and in a big way. But, as tends to happen, word's getting out.

First, there've been the multiple interventions over recent months of the Holy See's UN pointman Archbishop Celestino Migliore on sustainable development and warning against the industrialized world's further slide toward climate change. And now from the home turf comes word that one of Vatican City's biggest "energy-guzzlers" -- the Paul VI Audience Hall -- is going completely solar.
[T]he mastermind behind the environmentally friendly project, Pier Carlo Cuscianna, head of the Vatican's department of technical services, says that the sun will provide all the building's energy needs.

And that is only the beginning.

Cuscianna told Catholic News Service that he had in mind other sites throughout Vatican City where solar panels could be installed, but that it was too early in the game to name names.

Even though Vatican City State is not a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol, a binding international environmental pact to cut greenhouse gases, its inaugural solar project marks a major move in trying to reduce its own so-called carbon footprint, that is, the amount of carbon dioxide released through burning fossil fuels.

The carbon dioxide-slashing solar panels will be installed sometime in 2008 after prototypes, environmental impact reports and other studies have been completed, Cuscianna said.

In a 23 May article in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Cuscianna wrote that safeguarding the environment was "one of the most important challenges of our century."

The Italian engineer said appeals by Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II to respect nature inspired him to help power the Vatican's energy needs with renewable resources.

He recalled how, in this year's World Day of Peace message, Pope Benedict warned of "the increasingly serious problem of energy supplies" that was leading to "an unprecedented race" for the earth's resources.

Cuscianna also found inspiration from Pope John Paul's 1990 peace message, dedicated in its entirety to the need to respect God's creation.

"We cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past," the pope wrote, calling for "a new ecological awareness" that leads to "concrete programs and initiatives."

Cuscianna took the initiative and helped draw up and deliver to the Vatican governor's office a feasibility study of going solar.

He said the Paul VI hall was chosen first for a number of reasons: Cooling and heating the large audience hall makes it one of the top energy guzzlers in the Vatican, and its roof was in need of repair.

When the project is finished, more than 1,000 solar panels will cover the football field-sized roof.

While not revealing how much the solar project will cost, Cuscianna said "it will pay for itself in a few years" from the savings on energy bills.

Whatever solar power the hall is not using will be funnelled into the Vatican's energy grid and benefit other energy needs, he said.
Oft-referred to as "the Nervi" as a nod to its architect, the Italian modernist Pier Luigi Nervi, the hall (whose glass-paned roof is shown above) was completed in 1971.

Given the massive crowds which have gathered for Benedict XVI's Wednesday General Audiences, the Nervi now hosts public audiences only during the dead of Roman winter. Aside from audiences in the main room, the smaller chamber above its entryway serves as the meeting-place of the Synod of Bishops and other mid-size hierarchical gatherings; the hall was also the venue for most of the public consistories of the last pontificate.

The Paul VI -- named for the late pontiff, who commissioned it, after his death -- also doubles as the Vatican's entertainment venue of choice, most recently hosting advance screenings of two movies on the life of John Paul II, and the evening of classical music to mark Benedict XVI's 80th birthday.

Himself no stranger to enviro-friendly statements, B16 received an electric powered golf-cart in the months after his election, which he uses to zip around behind the Vatican walls. But the papal ride might not be all -- reports currently circulating in Rome say that the Pope's next encyclical, believed to be on the topic of work, will contain an expressed concern for, and focus on, the environment.

As always, stay tuned... and mind your carbon footprint.