The Malta Independent 13 June 2024, Thursday
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Summer 2023 power cuts a result of lack of investment – Ryan Callus

Kyle Patrick Camilleri Sunday, 2 June 2024, 07:30 Last update: about 11 days ago

The Nationalist Party’s Shadow Minister for Energy, Ryan Callus, has told The Malta Independent on Sunday that last summer’s power cuts were the result of a lack in investment over the past 10 years in the electrical distribution network, coupled with an energy generation issue, and the country’s economic model being based on population increase rather than on high value-added sectors.

“This government, since coming to power in 2013, has abandoned the distribution network,” Callus said. Referencing these power outages, he also labelled the energy distribution issue that the government said caused these blackouts as “another disastrous energy policy of this government”.

Last summer, the Maltese islands experienced a series of power cuts, which the government attributed to the intense heat caused by the prolonged heat wave that struck the country in the final days of July. This resulted in the government speeding up its investment to reinforce the energy distribution network.

In December 2023, Infrastructure Malta CEO Ivan Falzon stated that his agency and Enemalta were “convinced” that they could reach their targets to add on 70 kilometres worth of medium voltage cables to the national electricity distribution system by June 2024. By March of this year, the government had laid out 38 kilometres of new underground cables to the national grid.

Callus was contacted by The Malta Independent to speak on behalf of the Opposition and give his opinion on government comments collected by this newsroom last month. In April, this newspaper contacted a government energy expert through the Ministry for the Environment, Energy and Regeneration of the Grand Harbour (MEER) to discuss the government's energy policy, energy mix and the future direction of the country's energy sector.

In this news report, Ing. Ismail D’Amato had told this newsroom that Malta could be fully reliant on renewable energy sources (RES) for intermittent periods of time once all planned energy projects are completed. Such medium- and long-term projects include the construction of a second interconnector, the Melita TransGas pipeline, large-scale RES such as offshore farms, the reinforcements to the electrical grid and the effort to push towards Large Scale Battery Energy Storage Systems.

In his response, Callus gave his and his party’s stance on the claim that Malta is seeking full reliance on renewables, on the timing and overall handling of the country’s energy sector and supply, on present and proposed strategies to shift away from fossil fuels and on last summer’s notorious power cuts.

Callus provided three reasons as to why under a PN government Malta would not have experienced last summer’s extensive power outages. He said that a PN government would not have adopted the present economic model that relies on incoming foreign workers, it would not have “abandoned” the distribution infrastructure for 10 years and it “would have coupled the investment in the distribution network to reflect the development taking place in particular areas”.

Blaming the government for its lack of foresight and planning, Callus stated that if the Nationalist Party had been in power over the last few years, “we would have never got to that instance in the first place”.

“The government has failed miserably in underinvesting in the distribution network when compared to development which has taken place in each and every street,” Callus said.

PN’s energy spokesperson, an engineer by profession, detailed to this newsroom how the widespread development of two-storey terraced houses into (4+1) apartment blocks has caused many buildings to increase their amount of single-phase meters, in order to compensate for the extra households.

Callus said that this overdevelopment across the Maltese islands could potentially double the electricity demand for any given street.

He then added that if the distribution network does not adapt to this widespread development, then it is natural that “somewhere needs to fail eventually”. Callus noted that this is what happened in July 2023, when some unfortunate residents were left without electricity for over 40 consecutive hours.

According to the Nationalist spokesperson, last summer’s electrical failures occurred because the electricity network was unable to meet the high demand during the scorching summer period. The lack of necessary reinforcements, combined with soaring temperatures, led to peak periods of extremely high energy consumption as many households relied on air-conditioners to cool down. While the government had pinned this difficult summer period to this distribution issue, Callus stated that thanks to a letter written to the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) by Enemalta CEO Ryan Fava, we now know that last summer was also the result of an energy generation issue.

Callus also said that this letter was the first time in which someone from Enemalta’s top brass admitted that the country has a generation issue. Callus noted that this is “something which Labour always kept away from the people”.

The PN MP remarked that in this letter, the Enemalta CEO said the country has an energy generation issue, and thus, stated the importance for the permit of two diesel generators worth €37m to be approved. On other occasions, Callus, on behalf of the Nationalist Party, has called this costly rental “complete madness” and “indicative of amateurism in the government’s energy policy”.

In this context, the Opposition spokesperson explained to this newsroom that the deal involved the government spending €37 million to rent two diesel-powered generators, which could only be used for 47 days—amounting to approximately €787,000 per day of use. In early April, Newsbook reported that Prime Minister Robert Abela hopes that this €37m emergency electricity plant is never switched on.

Callus said that the government has resorted to this decision because it “never planned for this substantial population growth in terms of long-term generation planning”.

“This is a quick fix which is costly, environmentally wrong and coming from a government that criticised the Nationalist administration for using heavy fuel oil,” Callus said.

Going back to 2011, Callus discussed the long-awaited implementation of the second interconnector. He said that “if the government had continued to follow Enemalta’s 2011 plan, it should have been in place by now”.

He remarked that “the second interconnector should have been implemented already by now” and condemned the PL government for previously pinpointing “any faults” on the interconnector in place “to make people believe that their power station is the best thing this country has ever had”.

Callus also stated that “if we had the second interconnector, we wouldn’t have needed these [diesel] generators.” He noted that this holds true if one looks at the rental timeframe for the generators; during the two years and three months they will be rented, energy demand will not decrease, but “the second interconnector would have been operational”. “When we speak of green energy and renewables, Malta should have been at the forefront years ago,” he said.

Referencing the Electrogas power station that was inaugurated in 2017, Callus mentioned how the PL government at the time had preached about it being “sufficient to cater for the demands in the years to come” yet just seven years later in the present day, “we already have a generation issue because there was the wrong planning and the wrong economic model”.

On the latter point, Callus criticised the government’s energy spokesperson for rejecting “the fact that the energy generation demand has increased substantially because of the economic model adopted by the government through increased population”.

The Nationalist MP said that the government expert repeated the government’s narrative over the scientific facts by saying that the country is experiencing an increase in demand from “a booming economy with record growth among the EU member states combined with an unprecedented period of high temperatures”, rather than from rising population numbers.

Callus noted that the country’s economy has fared well partially because of the increase in the population.

“We’ve selected sectors which are dependent on cheap labour and mass labour,” he said, “That increases the need for more residential units.” He elaborated that this does not mean that the Maltese islands do not require these sectors, such as construction, but that government investment should be prioritised elsewhere.

The PN MP thus iterated his party’s stance that the country’s economic model should be based on the government investing in high value-added sectors such as gaming, pharmaceuticals and aviation. Callus described these high value-added sectors as not relying on a large influx of people, since the work involved generates more production for the same amount of hours.

“The sectors we should be investing in as a government should be high value-added, because when we start pushing on having sectors which depend on a larger population, we’re going to start having problems across the board – which we already have,” he said. Some problems that Callus referenced here include energy generation and energy distribution, the capacity of hospitals, and whether water and sewage are adequate for a larger influx of people living locally.

On the matter of Malta potentially becoming fully reliant on Renewable Energy Sources (RES) once the government's energy projects are finalised, Callus remarked “we're late" in implementing this plan. Hence, Callus said that “wind energy is the way forward” when it comes to renewables and that “we’re late in not even having an offshore wind farm”.

The Nationalist politician favours wind energy even after acknowledging its intermittency; he noted that wind turbines may not rotate in low wind settings and that excessive winds may damage them unless they are locked in place.

“We need to have the right mix to make sure that the intermittency never affects the constant supply of energy that this country needs,” Callus said.

Callus made reference to the PN’s plans from 2011 – from the last PN administration – in which the then Environment Minister George Pullicino had proposed a project of wind turbines fixed to the seabed. He said that had this project continued its natural project lifetime, “by now, we would have already had an offshore wind project”.

Callus was unimpressed by the claim that Malta could fully run on renewable energy at times, saying that “simply putting out a statement of the sort without binding it to a deadline is of little news”. In this context, the PN MP commented that in his personal opinion, “this is the weakness of this government”.

“I am not interested in any more cliches and nice statements that we can be 100% reliant on renewable energies. Those statements have been made time and over again by the government,” he said. “What we are after now are concrete actions which are time bound.”

“I still don’t see a government committed to renewable energy, simply because we have not been given deadlines,” Callus stated. “Government commitments without timebound decisions mean nothing in the context that we are living in today.”

The Opposition’s energy spokesperson was adamant that even though RES is currently more expensive than fossil fuels, EU funding streams into cleaner energy provide a means to invest in these technologies. Callus said that RES’ pricier nature “should not be an excuse why we should continue using and burning gas and fossil fuels” especially if a member state can couple EU funding with injections from the private sector.

Concluding this interview, Callus expressed dissatisfaction that Energy Minister Miriam Dalli has not given the people assurance that what happened last summer will not repeat itself this year. He believes that such assurance is vital to incentivise companies and investors to financially commit themselves to the Maltese islands.

Furthermore, he believes Minister Dalli has fallen short or is lagging behind in many of her targets as Energy Minister. These include the insufficient number of available charging stations on the islands, the limited presence of electric vehicles on Maltese roads, achieving a specific percentage of renewable energy, the lack of deadlines for energy projects and the state of the country's energy distribution.

In his assessment of the minister, Callus said that he can point a few positives, “though in the grander scheme of things, I cannot say that what has been accomplished so far can be given a pass mark, especially in comparison to other EU countries that we are compared to on a daily basis”.

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