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Russia's invasion of Ukraine made an Italian energy crisis much worse

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Russia's war against Ukraine has made Europe's energy crisis even more critical. Leaders across the continent are trying to ease the burden of rising prices with billions of euros of subsidies and other measures. Those haven't done enough yet to reduce household costs. In Italy, workers in nearly every sector feel the pinch as Adam Raney reports.

ADAM RANEY, BYLINE: In Anzio, a picturesque seaside town south of Rome, fisherman Lorenzo Colantuono brings his boat, il Pesce Volante, the Flying Fish, up to the dock. A spike in fuel prices before Russia invaded Ukraine had already made life very difficult.

LORENZO COLANTUONO: (Through interpreter) Since the war started, diesel prices have gone sky high. I'm spending 3,000 euros a week on fuel.

RANEY: That's a third more than he was spending before the crisis. At 53, Colantuono has the weathered look of someone who's led a life on the sea, a life he chose at 16 and still loves. But he doesn't see a future in it if he can't fill his tank.

COLANTUONO: (Through interpreter) If the crisis continues, fishing is dead. It's finished. I'm the fourth generation in my family to do this. After me, we've decided no more, enough.

RANEY: The energy crisis is touching every sector, even art. A blazing hot furnace in Murano, near Venice, an island renowned for vibrant glassblowing works. The methane fueled ovens run 24 hours a day, now at incredible cost. Having lost her job in the pandemic, glassblower Chiara Lee Taiariol and two partners launched a women's cooperative making glass sculptures. In less than a year, their quarterly gas bill went from 7,500 euros to a jaw-dropping 52,000.

CHIARA LEE TAIARIOL: The situation when the war started - it was already heavy for us. It was already messed up, and we were waiting for a lower price of gas. And when the war started, I got that this would not happen soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Italian).

RANEY: High utility bills are top on people's minds. TV shows feature experts giving cost-cutting tips. Since Italy produces more than 40% of its electricity from natural gas, a spike in gas prices means Italians are now paying sometimes four times more for electricity than a year ago. And Italy's main supplier, Russia, provides 40% of the country's gas.

ROBERTO CINGOLANI: The wake-up call is very clear. We need a much wider energy mix.

RANEY: That's Roberto Cingolani, Italy's minister for ecological transition. He's accelerating Italy's plan to produce 70% of its power from renewable resources by 2030. And he wants to wean Italy off of Russian gas in three years.

CINGOLANI: It was crazy to rely only on gas. It's a big mistake to be so much dependent on a single country.

RANEY: For the plan to work, Russia needs to keep selling gas to Italy until Italy decides it doesn't need it. There are some risks, though.

ALESSANDRO LANZA: Risk No. 1, of course, is that Russia would say from tomorrow on we are not going to sell you natural gas, period.

RANEY: That's economist Alessandro Lanza, who says that would lead to electricity rationing in the short term. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin has made such threats to countries that don't pay for gas in rubles, other energy experts see this as unlikely. Russia needs all the money it can make right now. Still, the previous shock to the economy, the pandemic, has left Italy perhaps better prepared to deal with the current crisis. Italy is the largest recipient of European recovery funds, some 220 billion euros meant to both relaunch the economy and make it more resilient.

CARLO ANDREA BOLLINI, BYLINE: It was a fortuitous coincidence, that we are having the instruments to be more flexible in face of a shock.

RANEY: That's economist Carlo Andrea Bollini (ph).

BOLLINI: So whether it is a COVID shock or a war, you know, military shock, we are certainly more prepared now to alleviate to the consequences.

RANEY: Those consequences, though, are everywhere, even in a cup of traditional Italian espresso. At Rome’s Bar Duetto, Erica Sembroni gives a simple economics lesson.

ERICA SEMBRONI: (Through interpreter) We charge a euro for an espresso. That's the right price. It shouldn't cost more than a euro. Another cafe around the corner started charging 1 euro and 10 cents, and a lot of their customers started coming here just to save 10 cents.

RANEY: A sign that in this crisis, Italians are looking to save wherever they can.

For NPR News, I'm Adam Raney in Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adam Raney