A new quest for land: Malta’s solar farms set to cover an area as large as 94 football grounds

Solar energy farms are set to cater for half of Malta’s 10% renewable energy target for 2020 • To realise this goal a total of 2.7 million sq.m of solar farms – that’s 397 football grounds – are required

Solar energy farms are set to cater for half of Malta’s 10% renewable energy target for 2020
Solar energy farms are set to cater for half of Malta’s 10% renewable energy target for 2020

There are a total of 22 separate applications by private individuals, and one by Enemalta for the development of solar farms that will take up an area as large as 94 football grounds.

While most of these developments are being proposed in quarries or former landfills, solar panels are also being earmarked for the open countryside on top of massive greenhouse projects in pristine areas like the Munxar area of Marsaskala.

In the past month alone, the applications presented totalled an entire area that would cover 35 football grounds the size of Ta’ Qali stadium.

Enemalta also submitted an application for a massive 5MW solar farm overlying the Maghtab landfill over 84,000 square metres – some 12 football grounds – on land previously earmarked for landscaping with indigenous shrubs, and trees.

Race against EU targets

Solar energy farms are set to cater for half of Malta’s 10% renewable energy target for 2020.

To realise this goal a total of 2.7 million sq.m of solar farms – that’s 397 football grounds – are required. Malta already has around 300,000 solar panels mostly located on rooftops, which generate around 80MW of energy.

Since 2015, the applications for solar panels would require 642,000 square metres of land for the farms. This area would include 19,000 sq.m for greenhouses roofed with the solar panels, approved during the past years.

The largest private solar farm is being proposed on a 77,000 sq.m backfilled quarry along Triq l-Imgarr in Mgarr, located beneath the Falka Gap ridge. Limited space is increasing in the wake of Malta’s decision to shift its renewable energy policy from wind energy to solar power.

And while wind would have had an impact on sensitive marine and coastal ecosystems and seaside views, as was the case with the aborted Sikka l-Bajda farm in Mellieha, solar energy will however take even more land.

Using quarries for solar energy can provide the opportunity for the rehabilitation of old and infilled quarries, but it can also discourage the reversion of this land to agricultural use. The policy regulating solar farms approved last year states that this could “serve as an opportunity for quarry operators to regularise their position and bring their operations in line with current policies and legislation” – a sign of things to come

The greenhouse exception

While the solar farm policy bans any development in the open countryside by limiting it to quarries, this ban is being circumvented through proposals for solar greenhouses.

The rural policy of 2014 encourages farmers to opt for greenhouse development to boost incomes through “intensive crop cultivation” and overcome climatic constraints on fruit and vegetable production.

But no policy currently regulates ‘solar greenhouses’. The PA has already approved solar panels on 19,335 sq.m on greenhouses or in rural areas over the past two years. The largest covers 11,500 sq.m at Fiddien.

Now the PA is assessing two other solar greenhouse developments: a 19,000 sq.m development in Ta’ Lelluxa in Ghajnsielem along the Mgarr road, and another one over 17,308 sq.m along Triq il-Qala.

The most recent solar greenhouse proposal is earmarked in the sensitive area of Munxar in Marsaskala where greenhouses are set to cover 4,000 sq.m of land.

Siggiewi: Malta’s new energy hub?

Since the start of 2018, eight planning applications have been presented on various quarries in Siggiewi.

These eight applications foresee solar development on 240,000 sq.m of land. The applications foresee the development on quarries in Wied Xkora, Ta’ Mahmah, Taz-Zebbiegh and Lapsi.

These applications were presented after the final approval of the solar farm policy, which largely limits the farms to disused quarries and specifically targets the localities of Mqabba, Kirkop, Qrendi and Siggiewi, including those located in Special Areas of Conservation.

The Taz-Zebbiegh proposal specifically refers to the regularisation of pending enforcement orders. Another controversial application from 2016 foresees the development of nearly 4,000 panels on warehouses constructed in a former quarry in Tas-Sejba, Mqabba. The inclusion of warehouses was opposed by the Environment and Resources Authority, because this meant the introduction of an industrial development in a site that is not designated for such uses. A similar application submitted by the Bilom group in Attard was withdrawn.

Coal ash dumps, agritourism, solar farms

In Benghajsa, 29,000 sq.m of land are being earmarked for a solar farm by Mediterranean Energy Limited. The land consisted of a limestone quarry which upon exhaustion of the resource, was used to dispose of coal ash. Subsequently the coal ash was covered by a thin layer of rubble fill and topsoil.

Since than the site has been repopulated by natural vegetation. The site also includes various huts roofed with concrete or corrugated sheets used as trapping hides.

In the Munxar area of Marsaskala, 18 greenhouses covering an area of 4,000 sq.m are being proposed on what is a protected site that was recently earmarked for a massive agritourism project.

The 4.8m-high greenhouses will have PV panels installed on them. But they are being proposed in what is a buffer zone to a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and in an area designated for its landscape value.

Buffer zones enjoy Grade 3 protection, which permits agricultural development when it does not impact on neighbouring SACs.

The application was presented by Rennie Scicluna, the owner of a falconry centre in Siggiewi. Originally, Scicluna wanted the land to host an agritourism project complete with guest-rooms, restaurant, health and fitness centre, a conference centre, and 300 sq.m animal farm and 1,260 sq.m of greenhouses.

But the Planning Authority shot down the proposal in a screening letter, saying the project was incompatible with the conservation of the rural characteristics and scheduling status of the area.

Plans for the latest application were drawn up by architect Charles Buhagiar, a former Labour MP.