The Malta Independent 29 February 2024, Thursday
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WATCH: Power cuts showed that investment in energy network was not enough, minister admits

Albert Galea Sunday, 6 August 2023, 08:30 Last update: about 8 months ago

The spate of power cuts which Malta faced over the course of a 10-day heatwave in July proved that the investment in Malta’s electricity infrastructure was not enough, Energy Minister Miriam Dalli admitted in an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday.

Dalli said that the government’s priority now is to increase and accelerate the investment in the electricity grid that was already planned.

The Energy Minister was grilled on the spate of power cuts, which affected tens of thousands over the course of a 10-day heatwave, with the first and foremost question being whether the government had simply failed to prepare for such an extreme weather event.

Dalli replied that Malta faced heatwaves in the past, but not with the same intensity as the one which hit the island recently.

She noted that United Nations secretary general António Guterres even called this “the era of global boiling” and continued that “what we saw in the last few days was unprecedented”.

“I look at the issue from two aspects: on one hand we had this heatwave persisting for almost 10 days with temperatures of over 40 degrees for more than a week – something which even the Meteorological Office will say is unprecedented, and I’m convinced that people could also see what is happening in the Mediterranean around us… we saw a Mediterranean which was ablaze; but I’m not using that as an excuse, because then you have the other aspect: the aspect that it is evident; that the investment in our infrastructure, while it was there, was not enough,” Dalli said.

“It means that we need to invest more and that our efforts need to be stronger,” she added.

Dalli said that this was in fact one of the first decisions that the government took and communicated to social partners in a meeting. There, Dalli said, the government shared its plans to accelerate the plan which Enemalta already had in place.

This plan was the one announced by the Energy Ministry in February 2022, when €90m was set aside to invest in Enemalta’s electricity distribution network, together with €70m in funds from the RePower EU scheme.

Dalli said that work on this plan had already begun: for instance, the capacity at the Mriehel, Marsascala and Tarxien distribution centres had already been doubled. She said that there are now plans to double the capacity of the distribution centres in St Andrew’s and San Gwann, and building new distribution centres in Naxxar, Siggiewi, Rabat and Cottonera as well.

She said, though, that there must be short-term measures to mitigate what the country went through last month, adding that this was summarised in eight main points.

These were doubling the investment in the distribution network to accelerate the already existing plan; reinforcing the worst-affected zones; increasing the amount of 11kv cables going from distribution centres to localities; increasing automation so power can be returned to as many homes as quickly as possible; laying more cables between substations to increase resilience; increasing the amount of low voltage feeders; hurrying up certain processes and having more coordination between all entities.

She said that the plan – and therefore the solution – is already there, but it now needs to be accelerated.

When it was pointed out that there have been heatwaves in the past and that the government – particularly as it had declared a climate emergency in 2019 – should have perhaps known that a weather event such as that which hit Malta was possible, Dalli said that heatwaves up until now had spanned two to three days, but this time it spanned far longer.

She said that investment has been done: “It’s good to note that in the last 10 years there was investment in electricity distribution… over 500 substations were automated, nine distribution centres saw increased capacity… but it’s evident that, no, it wasn’t enough. It is our duty to offer a strong infrastructure.”

She continued that beyond climate change there were other factors which contributed, listing the growth in the economy and the change of people’s attitude, which has seen more things in households relying on electricity as two such factors.

“You need to look at all of these in their totality, but the fact remains that you must have enough infrastructure to deal with these situations,” she said.

Asked whether Malta’s increase in population over the past years was another of those contributing factors, Dalli said that the consumption patterns seen in the past two months show that this is not the case.

“If you compare June with July, the median consumption per household at the end of June was of 9 kilowatts. During the heatwave, that median consumption doubled and more than doubled,” she said.

She said however that she did not want to simplify the cause to one thing or another or seem like she was exclusively blaming the hot temperatures.

“This is a situation which is with us and which we will see more and more often, and there are a number of factors which jointly lead to it,” she said.

 

Concerns of social partners, anger of the people

The two weeks during which Malta experienced the heatwave and the spate of power cuts throughout brought out frustrations in many.

Social partners were left with many concerns as businesses lost stock and others were forced to close due to the lack of electricity. The hospitality industry meanwhile was affected by tourists cutting their holidays short.

Dalli said that some of those issues were due to the extreme heat and others were due to the power cuts. Speaking on those related to the power cuts, Dalli said that the matter of compensation had been discussed with social partners and they want more talks to take place in order to ascertain how the government can aid in these circumstances.

On what was related to the heatwaves, Dalli said that one of the things which the Prime Minister announced was to have certain processes in place which detail what needs to be done to help the elderly and vulnerable in particular during such extreme weather episodes, as this is a situation which will likely not be a one-off. Many of the 21 people who died from health issues caused by the heatwave last month were elderly citizens.

Many of the thousands who were affected by the power cuts took to social media to express their discontent and to share how they coped: some tried to sleep on balconies, rooftops or in cars. Those who could afford to booked a hotel. Those who couldn’t had to wait it out in the heat.

Asked who should be shouldering the responsibility for all of this, Dalli said that first and foremost she understands people’s anger.

“Having those high temperatures and then ending up without electricity brings a sense of frustration and inconvenience which bothers a lot of people. It’s the same sentiment which I felt… worrying about my parents. It was unacceptable and it remains unacceptable as that’s the time that you need an infrastructure which is strong,” she said.

The minister continued that she understands taking responsibility as something which was done by mobilising all the necessary resources to address the situation, providing media updates every day and identifying and implementing the solutions for the problems which came up.  

She denied any suggestion that she may have at some point said that people should be grateful for the government’s energy subsidies, saying that while the subsidies did help people, she does not expect anyone to give their gratitude for doing her job as a politician.

Dalli also denied the contents of a report that an “emergency” direct order was issued for industrial generators being used for the filming of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator 2 to be sent to Zurrieq – one of the most affected localities by power cuts and a locality in her district – for their village feast.

She said that Enemalta has a number of different generators which it uses to relieve various situations and that these generators were used in a raft of localities. Zurrieq was one of them, but they were also used in Zebbug, Msida, Zabbar, Dingli, Zejtun, Ghajnsielem, Dingli, Mellieha and Gudja.

The anger and criticism though led to some – particularly the Nationalist Party – calling for Dalli’s resignation.

Asked about these calls, Dali said that the sentiment from social partners was quite the opposite from the one which the PN and its leader Bernard Grech had expressed.

“I want to ensure that we address these challenges: the Prime Minister has faith in me, but I feel that we need to show results. That’s the government’s challenge: it has had a number of challenges – this is another one which we need to address in the most effective manner,” Dalli said.

 

Counting the cost?

A political dispute, which arose in the immediate aftermath of the spate of power cuts, was how much they had cost the country.

The Nationalist Party wheeled out an old press comment from under a Nationalist administration when then Labour MEP Edward Scicluna – who went on to become Labour’s long-serving Finance Minister until he left politics to become Governor of the Central Bank – who said that a six-hour power cut had cost the country’s economy €20m.

The PN said that using the same method of calculations, the power cuts, which characterised the week, have cost the country €200m.

Asked whether that estimation is correct though, Dalli said “the PN doesn’t even know how much its own measures would cost, but it can then throw the €200m figure out on this”.

She quoted a report which in turn quoted economist Philip von Brockdorff who said that one can only reach the answer to how much the power cuts cost the country through a detailed analysis.

“For me, whatever the amount is, the fact is that this is a situation that we cannot accept and so we must ensure that the measures we announced are implemented quicker,” she said.

Pushed on whether the government has an estimate figure, Dalli said that such an analysis isn’t done in a day, and that the government’s main focus now is repairing where the damage was, having an electricity grid which is as strong as can be and discussing the matter of compensation for businesses and residents.

On the PN’s call for an urgent debate in Parliament on the power cuts, Dalli said that PN leader Grech sought the discussion in the middle of the situation “when our focus was to ensure that we get power back to people’s homes”.

She described a motion which the PN tabled as “puerile” and not even being echoed by social partners, and said that Grech was being “partisan rather than seeing the national interest”.

 

Energy efficiency and solar rights

When it comes to new buildings, and Malta has seen many of those in the past decade, Dalli said that buildings of a certain scale have certain obligations which they need to follow, including having their own substation.

There are a number of things which need to be done in this sector, largely focused on making buildings more energy efficient, she said.

“Unfortunately I think the way in which certain buildings were built was not efficient… all you need to do is speak to people and they’ll tell you that their home is hot in summer and cold in winter… those aren’t the principles of energy efficiency,” Dalli said.

A part of this is ensuring that new buildings have solar panels, she said, which is something that has been listed in the guidelines for new buildings and recently the Planning Ministry published a number of minimum measures for buildings for public consultation.

A significant matter when it does come to solar panels is people’s solar rights, which at core are rights to protect people who do invest in solar panels. Asked whether the government was looking into legislating this, Dalli admitted that it is an issue that people make an investment and then do not get the benefit, and that it is one of the things which has been discussed with the PA for a while now.

 

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