Power outages: Miriam Dalli must step up

Leaving people for 12 hours or more without electricity in this heatwave is already atrocious enough; the least people expect is information on what happened and how long they expect to remain without the power supply

Two back-to-back heat waves that hit the central Mediterranean over the past couple of weeks sent temperatures soaring above 40°C, causing widespread unease and disruption. 

Malta was not spared the wrath with temperatures going above 40°C on several days last week, a trend expected to persist for most of the coming week as well. 

A consequence of the intense heat waves was the electricity outages that occurred in several localities. Underground cables carrying a heavier load as people switched on their ACs melted, causing major disruptions across various localities. 

Many families in Mosta, Naxxar and Żurrieq, but not only, experienced hours on end without electricity, leading to thousands of euros in damaged perishable goods being thrown away. 

Enemalta has defended itself, saying the power outages were the result of damage caused to electricity cables as a consequence of the intense heat. Digging up the roads to repair the damage complicated the repairs and contributed to the length of time to re-power households and businesses. And the company’s top brass has not excluded continued power outages over the coming days in view of the persistent bout of high temperatures. 

Now, this is not the first heatwave Malta has experienced and neither is it the first time that underground cables have exploded because of the heat. In August 2014, the Marsa distribution centre caught fire and several underground cables blew up, tearing up the roads above them. 

It may be argued that this is an act of God and Enemalta has no control over natural phenomena such as heat waves. It may be argued that cables can experience faults and this is also beyond the company’s control. It may be argued that what has happened is nobody’s fault and consumers have to endure the consequences until the damage is repaired. 

And while all these arguments are partially valid, the mere fact that cable faults have happened with such intensity in a short space of time is evidence of an electricity distribution infrastructure that is aged and rife with defects. 

Government had pledged a €90 million investment last year in the distribution network but evidently, not enough has been done with the older electricity cables burning up as a result of the increased load. 

For all the fanfare on power station projects and interconnectors to ensure there is enough electricity supply, very little emphasis has been given over the years to the distribution system. Coupled with a rapidly expanding population and strong economic growth, the lack of investment in the distribution network was simply a disaster waiting to happen. 

The prolonged heatwaves experienced this week were the straw that broke the camel’s back as air conditioning units went into overdrive. Thousands of households spent hours without electricity while others experienced fluctuating voltage. And with climate change experts warning of more frequent and lengthier spells of extreme weather, the future looks bleak unless action is taken to address the deficiencies. 

For starters, Enemalta must give a clear breakdown how the €90 million investment in the distribution network is being spent. How much of this amount is going into local substations to improve stability of supply and how much is going into the actual cabling infrastructure buried beneath the ground. 

Malta needs a stable and reliable electricity network that is suited for our climate and Enemalta must endeavour to achieve this aim. After all, when the Labour government roped in Shanghai Electric Power as a strategic investor in Enemalta, back in 2014, part of the promised investment had to result in an improved distribution network. 

But the company must also be able to communicate better with its own customers, especially when major outages occur. Leaving people for 12 hours or more without electricity in this heatwave is already atrocious enough; the least people expect is information on what happened and how long they expect to remain without the power supply. 

And then there is the issue of compensation. Given the creaking infrastructure and the exceptional circumstances that developed government should impress on the company the need to issue an ex gratia compensation, at least to households and businesses, in the areas where power outages lasted the longest. 

In the 2014 incident, government had taken it on itself to issue compensation of €25 per household to some 8,000 households in the Qormi and Luqa areas that remained without electricity for more than 12 hours. The amount was equivalent to more than a week’s worth of electricity for several households. Businesses were excluded from the one-off arrangement. 

Given the similar circumstances, a similar ex-gratia compensation should be given this time around to households and businesses. And it should be Enemalta that pays up by reducing the amount from the next electricity bill. 

However, this leader believes rather than having one-off arrangements whenever clamorous incidents erupt, Enemalta should have a distinct compensatory mechanism with clearly defined parameters in instances where electricity outages last longer than a pre-set number of hours. 

This mechanism should be different from any other compensatory mechanism the company has where it pays for faults caused to household and business appliances by voltage fluctuations. 

Energy Minister Miriam Dalli must step up and propose the legal changes needed to make sure Enemalta takes on the responsibility of compensating its customers in these circumstances. Apologising is not enough. After all, Enemalta enjoys a monopoly on distribution and it is government’s duty to ensure that the company carries out the necessary investment to improve the distribution network and more importantly treat its customers in a dignified manner.