Energy transition in Malta includes a renewable future

With Malta having the rotating presidency of the European Council it is useful to also review its approach to renewable energy. Fredrick Azzopardi, executive chairman of the energy utility Enemalta, writes in the Times of Malta about the renewable energy ambitions of the country.


Renewable energy ambitions

Enemalta plc is leading the way in the development of a diversified electricity generation mix, including the increased penetration of grid-connected renewable energy installations. As Malta’s principal electricity services provider, we have been working towards this diversification long before local businesses eyed renewable energy as a lucrative business opportunity.

The national consensus on Malta’s aspirations for a diversified electricity generation mix based on sources that are gentle on our environment is indeed a breath of fresh air.

We welcome the enthusiasm to renewable energy investment expressed by Noel Gauci, president of the GRTU’s Renewable Energy Section (January 18). We are ready to support this determination when it flourishes into the development of some of the exciting technologies he describes.

The Maltese energy sector is going through major transformations. We have witnessed a rapid rise in electricity consumption, the introduction of electricity importation through the interconnector as well as an increase in grid-connected renewable energy generators.

We will continue to revolutionise the generation mix as we dismantle the heavy fuel oil-fired plants at Marsa and Marsaxlokk and introduce natural gas as a viable, low-emission source of electricity to our customers.

This transformation ends our reliance on slow-start base load plants as they are replaced with more flexible technologies that are quicker to dispatch and better suited for Malta’s continuously changing electricity demand patterns.

The advent of the interconnector, smaller combustion engines and CCGT technologies instead of oil-fired boilers allows us to efficiently and swiftly respond to network demand and supply fluctuations, including sudden dips in renewable energy output due to weather changes or other conditions, without incurring substantial spinning reserve costs which would ultimately translate into higher tariffs.

Given our small islands’ vulnerability to sudden weather changes, this increased flexibility is an essential precursor to any major renewable energy investment.

We are relieved that the local industry and the powers that be are finally also acknowledging the importance of an ongoing network reinforcement investment to meet the ever-changing requirements of our customers. In the last three years, Enemalta invested heavily, in excess of €80 million, to lay the foundations for the long-awaited overhaul of the national grid.

We added four new 33kV distribution centres to the existing 20 centres across the country. We are working on another three new similar primary network nodes. We have upgraded another two distribution centres and are in the process of launching other similar projects. The network has also been reinforced with over 100 kilometres of new underground high-voltage cable connections.

Besides adding 80 new 11kV substations to the network, we have also upgraded over 100 other existing ones in different localities. These investments are boosting the network’s capacity, making it more flexible to meet different supply and demand requirements.

We welcome ideas for improvement, as long as they are based on the principles of shared responsibilities, sustainability and accountability

We are also adding new technologies specifically aimed at improving the conditions for the expected increase in distributed renewable energy generation. We introduced new OLTC transformers at our 11kV substations, as well as in-line voltage regulators to prepare our secondary network nodes for the expected growth in localised solar-powered generation.

This consolidation is a fundamental requisite for the increased penetration of renewable energy sources, including solar farms. The authorities are finalising policies on the potential locations of large solar farms and it is likely that some of the options may lie in areas of low demand.

In the absence of feasible energy storage technologies of such proportions, large PV farms will be even more reliant on a stronger network to transfer energy to other parts of the country.

Throughout the years, Enemalta has also supported local authorities in incentives encouraging renewable energy investments. The company subsidises grid connection fees by up to 88 per cent. This incentive alone has saved owners of PV installations thousands of euros, reducing the payback periods of their investments.

Last year we introduced a new paperless payment system for customers to receive their feed-in tariff profits automatically in their bank account every two months. We are also providing the services of our engineers to conduct network studies for new PV systems up to 40kW free of charge.

Sometimes one also tends to forget that besides the capital injection for the network upgrades required to accommodate new renewable energy projects, Enemalta would also need to fork out substantial operational costs to maintain the network year in year out.

PV installation owners do not share Enemalta’s responsibilities in the continuous control, repair and maintenance of the network.

As we spell out this multi-faceted investment to lay the foundations of the local renewable energy sector, accusations that Enemalta is reluctant to support the penetration of distributed renewables clearly fall through. Allegations that we overcharge investors of PV farms for network upgrades not required for their own projects are baseless and puerile. Our services and all our charges are, rightly so, regulated by national authorities to ensure that the costs we quote are purposely allocated for the specific investor’s required network upgrades.

We also provide businesses with the option to purchase certain network equipment required to implement their projects themselves, as long as they are in line with applicable national technical standards. Anyone who disagrees to network upgrade estimates offered by our company can also request redress from our regulatory authority, a safeguard few other local businesses offer.

However, it is fair to expect that individuals or businesses that make greater use of the network share in the development of the specific network expansion they require. Asking Enemalta to foot the bills for such upgrades required specifically for large-scale commercial investments, including grid-connected renewables, is tantamount to cutting the resources the company would otherwise use in its ongoing network reinforcement and maintenance programmes, to the detriment of all its other customers, including existing renewable energy projects.

It would also take Enemalta back to the days of financial distress, when its economic viability was not considered a priority, a direction which international rating agencies are constantly warning us against.

We welcome ideas for improvement, as long as they are based on the principles of shared responsibilities, sustainability and accountability. Right now, we’re presented with an industry proposal to raise the existing subsidised grid-connection fees. We need to ask ourselves: would this throw the burden of the network upgrades required for renewable energy projects on the smaller green investments? Would it force households and small businesses to pay for the requirements of larger projects?

Enemalta will continue to lead this environmental revolution. We registered the EU’s largest decrease in carbon dioxide emissions with the shutting down of the Marsa power station. This year we’ll be ending the use of heavy fuel oil burning for electricity generation.

We are now planning the development of Malta’s largest PV farm, on land at the former Maghtab waste tip. We look forward to collaborating with the local renewable energy sector in this project as well. Once again, we’ll be leading the way for cleaner energy in the Maltese islands.

We are truly “making Malta a better, cleaner and healthier place for all of us to live in and enjoy”, as Mr Gauci exclaimed a few days ago.

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