Malta’s energy plan: second interconnector key to lower emissions

Squaring the circle? Malta faces an enormous challenge in reducing emissions despite the expected increase in energy demand. Malta’s low carbon development strategy identifies the second interconnector as the key to lower carbon emissions. James Debono reports

Energy Minister Miriam Dalli
Energy Minister Miriam Dalli

A second interconnector for Malta could significantly reduce the use of Delimara’s gas-powered plants, according to the just-published national energy strategy.

In fact the two gas plants operated by Electrogas and Shanghai Electric could eventually serve as back-up plants after 2030, while still being a fundamental part of the energy mix between 2020 and 2030 when energy demand from residences is expected to climb by a staggering 32%.

Malta’s Low Carbon Energy Strategy foresees total electricity demand, including the shift to electric cars, to increase by 33% between 2020-2030 and a further 23% between 2030 and 2040.

A second electricity interconnector will be “heavily reducing the further use of gas for electricity generation” with the existing power plants eventually being “utilised for grid balancing or backup in case of constraints on the use of the interconnectors”.

The strategy casts a sobering light on Malta’s challenge to reduce carbon emissions as required by the EU’s overarching goal of carbon neutrality, while still securing economic growth.

Malta’s major reduction in carbon emissions will take place between 2030 and 2040 when emissions decrease from the current 2,300 kilotonnes of carbon, to 1,700 in 2030, and less than 500 in 2050. But emissions from the natural gas plants will grow from 2020 to 2030 as plant utilisation increases, a period coinciding with Electrogas’s 18-year power and gas purchase agreement.

Although natural gas produces less emissions than heavy fuel oil, its increased use in the next decade will still result in an increase in emissions, which government wants to partially offset with its second interconnector to Ragusa in Sicily, tagged at €170 million and expected to be completed by 2025.

Based on projected price developments in the Sicilian electricity market, it is also expected that a larger share of energy demand will be met by electricity imports. This will be complemented by additional renewable energy sources, such as offshore wind farms while reducing the use of gas plants.

Still, the dependence on a second interconnector has been criticised by the Green Party ADPD, which warns that the interconnector will not reduce overall emissions, but shift them to a source of energy generation abroad, and which could still be subjected to an EU-wide carbon tax. This could cause the price of electricity generated from fossil fuels to shoot up, irrespective of whether it is bought over the interconnector or not.

Renewable sources

The government plan is to have an offshore farm generate 870 GigaWatt-hours by 250, and 3,000 GWh from electricity imports. But the renewable energy share will still depend on technology breakthroughs from offshore marine renewables.

No mention is made of the blocking of access to sunlight by rampant building development, or a more solid regulatory framework for planning rules.

Technical limitations are expected to place solar roof panels at a peak of 9,127 by 2030, ensuring Malta reaches an 11.5% target share of renewable energy sources.

But offshore floating technologies for wind turbines and solar panels are also being considered: one area to the south of Malta of around 15 square-nautical miles was considered viable for such offshore renewables.

Offshore solar panels could be located between turbinesto maximise the efficiency of shore power connectors and mooring infrastructure. But this technology is still at an early stage, so no offshore solar generating capacity was actually included in the national plan.

Hydrogen is also identified as a “potential future source of energy” with current plants retrofitted for this source. But again, supply depends on imports from other countries, “thereby potentially posing a risk to security or to cost of supply”.

A hydrogen power station could act as a “back-up to intermittent renewables” if adequate battery storage technology is not in place by then to smooth supply from wind resources.

Emissions from buildings

Malta’s building stock is also expected to rise by 20% by 2050.

The increase in emissions from this expansion could be mitigated by the fact that Malta’s average energy consumption per dwelling is well below the EU average, indeed the lowest among all EU states thanks to its warmer climate during winter.

Reducing emissions from this sector will focus on energy-efficient domestic appliances and office equipment, light sensors, roof and wall insulation, and LED lighting uptake.

Support to vulnerable and energy-poor households to replace old appliances with new efficient units should also be fully rolled out as early as 2030.

For new buildings, government is still considering design criteria for efficiency standards, including a detailed feasibility study on how to balance increased upfront costs with savings, in the form of reduced bills.

The plan suggests that such measures are most needed to mitigate an increase in emissions between 2020 and 2030 as in this period electricity will still be “supplied locally”.

Emissions from cars

The carbon reduction plan also hinges on lower emissions from cars, which have increased by 86% since 1990. A ban on the imports of petrol and diesel-fuelled cars will come in place between 2030 and 2034, but this shift will contribute to an increase in electricity consumption as cars will depend on the power grid.

So the strategy identifies working from home as one factor which could lower emissions, committing the government to consider initiatives that avoid altogether the need to move. “One of the few positive outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic was that it forced employers, including government, to implement infrastructure that supports teleworking/remote working, thus decoupling the need to commute from the ability to produce.”

Around 33% of the local workforce is estimated to have worked remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is expected that post-COVID-19, half of the time worked will continue be carried out in this way.

While government wants to incentivise remote working and online services, the strategy is vague on a mass transport system that decreases the use of private cars. It says studies on mass transport are still underway. “Having completed the preliminary study phase and conceptual design, government is now proceeding with the second phase of the study which will also include a more detailed economic and financial business case and which will also take into consideration the post COVID-19 era.”

It would appear that a mass transport system is still some way off from being considered a viable option.

Energy demand up to 2050 in kilo-tonnes of oil equivalent (kToe)

  2020 2030 2040 2050
Private cars 275 273 251 239
Freight 91 114 123 135
Residential buildings 108 143 163 163
Hotels/hospitality 22 30 36 36
Public buildings 50 67 80 80
Industry 75 100 119 119
Total Electricity demand 214 320 394 394
Total Energy demand* 744 880 945 945

*Excluding conversion and distribution losses