Heatwaves, an overloaded electricity grid and power cuts: Is this the new abnormal?

I doubt anyone will resign over this, because the ability to say ‘I was wrong and I will take the blame’ is somehow lacking in our politicians’ DNA

When you are slumped in sweltering heat inside your own home during a power cut in what is described as “38 degrees but feels like 42” but actually feels like an inferno, you tend to care very little about why or how you have no electricity. You just want it back on, NOW.

This has been a horrendous week for the whole country when a scorching heatwave met daily power cuts to create the (im)perfect storm.

People are sleeping in their cars, on their roofs and terraces, on boats and even outdoors on the beach to try and get some much needed shut-eye before facing the inevitable next day of more sizzling temperatures and still no air conditioners or fans.

We experienced 12 hours of no power in our area in Mosta which was terrible enough, but reading of people who have suffered for three consecutive nights in the severe heat makes me count myself lucky that our situation (so far) has not been that bad.

No area has been spared; in some places, it is has gone off and come back on again several times, while in Santa Venera, one street has spent 35 straight hours without power. Where possible, people are packing a few clothes and fleeing to sleep at the homes of relatives who have not yet been affected, although it is a bit like Russian roulette at the moment to try and guess who is going to have the next power cut.

The worst hit are those with babies and young children, the elderly and those who are ill and need such equipment as a COPD machine to sleep. Mount Carmel psychiatric hospital was without electricity for more than four hours because the hospital’s generators failed to kick in, leading to a potentially precarious situation as confused patients started screaming and panicking.

Food is being thrown out and appliances are being damaged because of power surges and the whole thing can only be described as one big s**t show.

Meanwhile, the handling of this national electricity crisis has been underwhelming. With so many areas affected, the Enemalta helpline was quickly swamped and the public could not get through. The perfunctory SMS’s we were receiving did not serve to make us feel any better either, because when you are wilting like a limp lettuce the last thing you need is to be told something that you already know.

Obviously, no one is blaming Enemalta engineers, technicians and workmen who have the thankless job of working round the clock in this weather, trying to restore power to one area just as another area goes pitch black. In fact, everyone has been praising them while adding it is not their fault that the powers that be are completely incompetent and have made the wrong decisions.

The statement by the Enemalta CEO to explain what is causing such a prolonged electricity crisis was met with a hefty dose of skepticism. He told the media that the damage to the system was being caused by the sustained heatwave which has lasted longer than usual and is penetrating the ground, reaching and causing faults to the underground cables. The scornful guffaws echoed throughout the land. The authorities have consistently denied that it is because the infrastructure is not up to standard and cannot cope, and yet in the same breath we read that “Malta has reached a new peak electricity demand of 624 megawatts.”

No matter which way you slice it, the heavy reliance on the electricity grid by a population which has exploded over the last decade was a disaster waiting to happen. All it needed for the collapse of the entire infrastructure was one more variable… and that variable finally came in the form of the worst heatwave ever recorded in the Mediterranean.

As an island, we have experienced heatwaves before, but when we ask each other whether it was ever this bad, most people agree that this blistering heat is on another level entirely. It also rarely used to last more than a few days whereas, at the time of writing, the forecast is that we are going to continue with temperatures of 42 degrees until next week.

The crux of the matter is that this could (and has been) predicted… we had an infrastructure which was designed for a modest population of roughly 420,000 and even then, we used to have power cuts when the demand suddenly surged such as during a particularly cold winter month or like now, during a scorcher of a summer.

So, what did we do? Over the past 10 years we opened the floodgates to another 100,000 people (according to the latest census). But did the energy infrastructure take this population growth into consideration? Well, I think these power cuts are the answer to that question.

We cannot keep pretending that an influx of more people is not going to directly overload our demand for electricity. Summer after summer, we have become acclimatised to constant air conditioning, whether in our homes, offices, cars, restaurants, cafes, shopping malls and even the gym. Everyone gets home after a day’s work, their house or apartment is stifling hot, they simultaneously point their remotes at their good old faithful air cons and… poof!

...just like that… a blackout ensues.

Let me be clear that this is not a ‘blame it on the foreigner’ tirade. They are the least to blame, because they have all been actively encouraged to move here by an administration which kept telling us that without foreign workers paying into the economy with their NI and taxes, there will not be enough money for pensions and other social benefits.

But how on earth did this government expect to accommodate thousands and thousands of more people on this tiny rock without someone first sitting down and assessing, ‘hmmm, let me think… does the island actually have the infrastructural capacity to cope with all these people?’

As with the power cuts, the answer to this is staring us in the face every day. Practically every single problem which causes so much anger and frustration at every turn can be attributed to a lack of foresight and actual planning of what would happen to Malta when you add another 100k people. You just can’t keep cramming more people in when you have a limited space (although some landlords would argue otherwise).

I suppose those who dreamt of turning Malta into another Du-bai are getting their wish. As the old song (appropriately entitled Heatwave) goes: “The temperature’s rising and it isn’t surprising.”

As people reminisce about the good old days when opening a door to let the summer breeze come through was enough to lull us to sleep, the general consensus is that climate change has put paid to all that. Gone are those kinds of glorious, laidback summers when we could spend a whole day at the beach without the need for umbrellas or hats. Instead, many of us are opting to stay indoors, away from the muggy air and relentless rays ready to torch our skin the minute we step outside. That, too, has contributed to the consumption of more electricity.

Facing the brunt of this justified national anger is Energy Minister Miriam Dalli, with the PN calling for her to shoulder the responsibility for the chaos over this last week and resign. Asked about the right to compensation for damaged appliances and spoilt food, she told the press that an online form already exists on the Enemalta website for this purpose. But then she made the grave mistake of saying that the government’s €400 million energy subsidies are “the biggest compensation” people can have.

Once again, we have a situation where a minister is being tone-deaf and not correctly reading just how absolutely livid people are. Minister Dalli then posted on social media, repeating the claim that the power cuts were due to overheated cables, and the backlash she received was enough to shrivel even the toughest political animal.

I doubt anyone will resign over this, because the ability to say ‘I was wrong and I will take the blame’ is somehow lacking in our politicians’ DNA.

But politically speaking, this is the second major blow to the Abela administration within a few weeks - nationwide power cuts lasting five days are the last thing he needed after his complete mishandling of the Jean Paul Sofia public inquiry case.

As I write this on Friday afternoon, I have just checked the live outage map on the Enemalta website and some parts of the island are still without electricity. Ultimately, as we continue to struggle through this heatwave, people don’t want rhetoric or convoluted difficult-to-digest explanations - after all the millions spent on the energy sector, they just want to be able to flick a switch and find that they have electricity.