George M. Mangion | Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Wind power

It is most welcome news that the European Parliament approved an additional €25 million in funds for Malta which will be used to link the island to the European electricity grid through Sicily. It is a wise move by the government to use such funds to study the viability of using a subterranean cable to connect with the electricity grid in Sicily. To boot, the offer includes another €5 million to energy-related projects such as proposed wind farms. With much aplomb, the authorities announced that detailed studies to check the feasibility of locations for wind farms were being undertaken. This met with approval form the Green Party who in the past criticised the government for omitting to carry out the necessary environmental impact assessments and studies about aviation and maritime activity in the areas in advance of announcing the deal. So yes, we started a journey in the long and winding road of collecting data over wind streams which one expects may take years to compile. By coincidence, it was recently reported that a Dutch firm is keen to finance the construction of an offshore wind farm with a claimed eventual output of 105 megawatts from 30 turbines. This may have set the cat among the pigeons in that environmentalists complain that this behemoth may ruin our fragile landscape. Yet we need to start somewhere and this brings back memories of the fierce debate which ranged over the commissioning of Delimara power station twenty years ago. Nobody wanted it in his or her backyard yet everyone agreed that it was essential for the island to secure adequate supplies of electricity. Now twenty years later, we managed to secure some EU funds to study the viability of erecting wind farms either offshore or in limited numbers onshore. So with a density of population over an island measuring 316 square kilometres space is limited and many agree that the offshore wind farm option makes more sense. The viability of these offshore wind farms such as the one proposed for Sikka l-Bajda also rests on the cost of safe seabed foundations for the wind turbine tower so that it would not succumb to strong sea currents and obviously, strong north westerly winds. It cannot be a hasty decision given that the developers claim their turbines will last 20 to 25 years. Controversies were not absent from the media now much more so since parties are trying to voice their protests on anything that will enamour them to the electorate in the MEP elections.
The Green party resisted the option to erect the offshore wind farm in Mellieha saying that foreign experts had told the government that it was not viable. However, the information was flatly denied by the Resources Ministry. In their opinion, the Greens contend that cheap electricity can be generated from a land-based wind farm rather than from a very expensive offshore one. In their opinion, say four to five 750kW wind turbines should be erected on land in an appropriate location which will suit our requirements in the short term. Nobody denies that every effort is needed to explore all immediate possibilities so as to improve our carbon emissions. Now we must walk the walk after years of discussion, projections and posturing. There is never a better time to start even though economists warn us that the economy is shrinking and our debt levels are hefty. With no funds set aside, new taxes are unpopular but become inevitable. Debt is already beyond the Maastricht levels and the private sector is not in the mood to invest in projects with a long term recovery plan. This is a paradox which needs a solution. There is no denying that Malta must fulfil its EU obligations by 2020. On the international scene we see the price of a barrel of crude oil has increased to over $60 for the first time, making front-page headlines, as perhaps it reflects a marked improvement in China’s import strategy and a general feeling that the grass shoots in Europe are in sight. The government had a commitment with the EU to lift Enemalta’s monopoly by last year, but at the eleventh hour it announced it would be delaying the process. So as strategists predict a gradual upward trend in oil price, gone are the balmy days when the dirt cheap price tag of $12 in 1998 left the world economy wandering why anyone should invest in expensive alternative clean energy. On the other hand in Malta, consumers whose energy bills are currently 20 per cent lower than the levels last year yet they are still high and this is partly reflected in the above normal inflation rate of 4.3 per cent. Definitely turning to wind power will not bring down the cost of electricity yet we need to start cleaning our air and without much posturing start dismantling the old polluting Marsa power station. All this also impinges on the high level of asthma sufferers due to bad quality of air. The issue of air quality and climate change was one of the main environmental challenges listed in the National Sustainable Development Strategy Report.
Typically, this report says that electricity generation and transport are the main contributors to air pollution. The challenge is to ensure efficient alternative clean production and use of energy as well as a cost-effective transport system while improving air quality.
Until very recently, wind energy has been that it has been considered a Cinderella definitely outside the mainstream. It is criticised heavily by environmentalists because of the noise and vibrations such huge moving machines unavoidably generate, while bird migration may suffer.
Still, it has been a pipe dream of technicians, inventors and scientists. Cynics complain about wind turbines producing electricity only when the wind is blowing within the right speed range. But technology has vastly improved design such that today’s models may begin producing some electricity at low speeds. Thus, even though some days the wind is weak and reaches only about 8 miles per hour (MPH), the turbines are not idle and can reach their optimum output when wind blows around 33 MPH. As a safety measure in gale force winds reaching around 56 MPH they cut out. GE has stood out as the pioneer producer in renewable energy sector as the US manufacturer of industrial-size wind turbines.
Typically, one reads how GE Wind Energy has successfully commissioned four 1.5 megawatt wind turbines for Wind Farm Gembloux - Sombreffe in Belgium. In the literature for each type of renewable energy you will find somewhere the claim that each one of them could provide about half the world’s energy requirement if only given the chance. The bigger issue here is that Malta currently obtains 100 per cent of its energy from imported fossil fuels which eventually must be partially replaced by new and renewable wind and solar power technologies once adequate capital resources are secured. Such natural resources, as wind and solar, we have more than our share as a windswept island. For the past decade we saw a number of scientific studies conducted at university exploring the use of free sources of energy but no commercial success has been achieved so far. Therefore one cannot speak of prioritising economic growth without, at the same time, giving priority to a solid strategy towards clean energy. Without doubt this will gradually lead to a reduced dependence on imported fuel and cut health hazards - without endangering future economic expansion. Granted that suitability for large wind projects in Malta is limited due to our size. But by comparison, is it a consolation that in the pristine highlands of Scotland it has been planned that 18 per cent of energy to come from wind by 2010?
Mother nature can come to our rescue if we play our cards well.

George Mangion
Partner at PKF – an audit and business advisory firm



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20 May 2009

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