A massive offshore hexagon-shaped 460-metre-wide platform hosting 36 wind turbines, is being proposed for Malta by Swedish company Hexicon AB.
The project description statement (PDS) - a planning document required before the commencement of environment impact studies - has been submitted to the Malta Environment and Planning Authority and has been published on the authority's website.
This is the first time the project was made public although in May a number of foreign websites had referred to the endorsement of this project by regulatory authorities in Malta, Sweden and Cyprus in a bid to obtain EU funding for renewable energy projects.
According to the report, a location on the northeast of Malta 11 nautical miles from shore, where water depths vary between 100 and 150 metres, has already been identified.
A cable would link the wind-farm to an offshore substation in Maghtab.
The 10% guillotine
Malta will have to increase its renewable energy share to 10% from the current 1-2% by 2020.
The plant will produce 54MW, which amounts to 9% of the energy currently generated by the two existing power stations, and 24MW more than projected from the proposed Sikka l-Bajda windfarm.
The PDS claims that this development will enable Malta to meet its EU commitment to generate 10% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. It also promises "the production of energy at a more competitive rate than oil based power generating facilities".
If approved the project would represent full circle in the government's policy with regard to wind energy.
For the government's original plan presented in 2006 was to exclude near-shore and land-based wind farms in favour of a wind farm located in deep waters for which an international call for expression of interest was issued. But the technology for this kind of development was still at an experimental stage at the time.
After the 2008 election the government changed its policy by opting for a near shore windfarm at Sikka l-Bajda and two smaller land based farms in Hal Far and Bahrija.
According to the report a wind farm on a floating platform is the most viable option for Malta as it can exploit wind force from whichever direction the wind is blowing at the time. The platform may turn 360 degrees whilst anchored within 30 minutes.
The areas around the Maltese islands are considered to be too deep to allow for the economical and feasible construction of fixed monopole wind farms.
The report does not make any reference to the proposed wind farm at Sikka l-Bajda in Mellieha, whose environmental impacts are still being assessed. But the report states that "suitable areas with water depths under 20 metres are few and either too close to shore or are located in ecological areas".
Moreover the offshore wind farm's location would be "distant enough from shore as not to disturb the coastal view, and close enough to shore to be connected to the local grid at a reasonable cost".
The project's timetable depends on a pending funding application from the EU's investment program for renewable energy NER300. If this application succeeds, the plant could start operations in June 2014.
In May 2011 online portal Businesswire reported that authorities and government departments in Sweden, Malta and Cyprus had decided to support Hexicon in the EU investment program for renewable energy NER300.
According to the report, Hexicon's technology for large-scale, floating platforms for wind and wave power was analysed and reviewed by the Swedish Energy Agency, the Malta Resources Authority and the Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environment of the Republic of Cyprus.
Through the NER300 programme, revenues from the sale of 300 million emission allowances will co-finance a number of selected production plants for renewable energy.
Decisions on which production plants will obtain NER300 co-financing are made by the European Commission and the European Investment Bank (EIB).
According to the PDS the project will be subject to environment impact assessments. One of the impacts which has to be assessed will be that on bird migration, as well as its impact on marine mammals and fish.
Due to the extensive distance from the shoreline, the wind farm will only result in a "minimal appearance on the horizon", although the impact on the night skyline will be greater due to lights associated with the operations and safety aspects.
According to the PDS the company's role in the project includes site acquisition, project development and management, the partial sourcing of the project financing and entering an agreement with Enemalta for power purchase.
The company's website claims that their technology is based on the experience, knowledge and proven technologies from the energy, offshore oil rig and ship-building industries.
"With the Hexicon platform, floating offshore wind energy production becomes both profitable and competitive." But Hexicon still has to build its first plant and therefore these claims still have to be proven.
Hexicon AB has provided the technology for the project, while special companies have been set up in Malta, Cyprus and Sweden to develop the project.
The hexagon shaped platform will be constructed on the basis of offshore oil rig platform technology.
The patented "fagerdala hull system" provides the Hexicon platform with a composite outer protective layer. The hull system thus reduces the need for maintenance and extends the lifespan of both the platform itself and all equipment installed. This would result in less expensive energy the company claims.
The company claims that its platform has an expected lifespan of 50 years while the turbines have a life expectancy of 25 years.
As a result of size, design and mooring system, the Hexicon platform can be positioned at a wide range of locations, and is significantly less restricted by depths and seabed topography than bottom-mounted turbines. With the patented construction solution, the platform can also be assembled at the final location.
No formal application submitted
A spokesperson for MEPA confirmed that no formal application has been submitted to the authority with regards to the development of the floating windfarm, but Hexicon Malta Ltd. had already met the competent authorities and a special permit procedure was agreed to by MEPA.
But the proposed development has been "screened" to ensure that environmental studies respect MEPA's requirements. Subsequently, MEPA informed the project manager that the project will require an Environmental Impact Assessment. The Project Description Statement published on MEPA's website was in fact requested as part of this screening exercise.
According to MEPA a formal application is not necessary before the commencement of environmental impact studies. "The EIA and other studies can commence prior to the submission of such an application."
In fact conducting these studies before presenting an application makes more sense in cases where the precise location of the development itself needs to be guided by detailed technical evaluations and studies.
But a development permit application will still be necessary after these studies are conducted. "The carrying out of an EIA does not in any way substitute this requirement," the MEPA spokesperson added.