Ministers deny discussions with Mgarr solar farm proponents

Solar farm proponents requested PA to postpone decision as they intended to present new plans, following ‘discussions’ with three ministries, all of which are denying the claim

The ministries for environment and energy, the economy, and agriculture, have all denied having held any talks with the proponents of the Mġarr mega-solar farm over its plans to cover an agricultural holding the size of six football grounds with PV panels.

The Mġarr site is designated an area of ecological importance.

The Planning Authority’s board had turned down the unpopular application to which thousands had objected on 3 March, during the first week of the electoral campaign, as it was deemed to be in breach of Malta’s solar farm policy which limits such developments to disused quarries and brownfield sites.

During the board meeting, Electrofix had requested a postponement on the decision to give them time to present new plans following discussions with government entities. Subsequently, Electrofix Ltd appealed the decision claiming that the PA board was unfair when it refused to postpone the decision while presenting new plans.   

They claimed they had unsuccessfully asked the PA board to suspend the application so that they would be in “a position to submit revised plans following discussions with the Department of Agriculture, Ministry of Economy (Trade Department) and the Ministry of Energy.”

Official minutes of the PA hearing in March quote project architect Robert Sciortino saying that he was “requesting a suspension to be able to submit revised plans after concluding discussions with the related entities” in an indication that any such discussions with government bodies were still in the pipeline.

PA board chairman Vince Cassar denied the request, saying a suspension had already been requested on 3 January, and therefore there was “ample time” for the applicant to finalise any discussions with these entities.

Suggesting that Electrofix wanted to discuss its plans with the three government entities in question, the appeal does not state any such meetings actually took place following the PA’s refusal. But it included a new set of plans “intended to be submitted during the suspension period.”

Objectors who contacted MaltaToday expressed their concern at possible political interference in the planning process, questioning why plans still being assessed by the PA’s appeals tribunal should be the subject of discussions with government ministries or departments.

But replying to questions by MaltaToday, all three ministries excluded any discussions with the applicant over the new plans for 6,528 panels on 18,760sq.m of land – which represents 42% of the 44,500sq.m site.

Previous plans rejected were for 5,784 solar panels on 90 greenhouses over 14,100sq.m of land – a land coverage of 32%. But while the latest plans actually envisage more panels, the layout leaves room for a central plot of agricultural land.

In their appeal, the developers claim the greenhouses will be used to grow “extensive amounts of crops which will be put on the local market for sale, while the solar activity will also be used to lower the commercial cost of the agricultural produce apart from contributing to the national electricity grid.” Plans refer to the growth of vegetables like lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, aubergines, ginger, herbs, cabbages, strawberries as well as snails. The greenhouses will be placed into the ground using small concrete plinths to ensure that no damage is done to any archaeological remains. 

To circumvent the existing policy against solar farms on agricultural land, the company is now claiming that the main aim of their proposal is to “reinvest in the agricultural activity and making the produce more financially viable.” They also state that they are willing to accept conditions to ensure that should the agricultural activity stop, the solar activity is stopped as well. 

The first hearing of the appeal will take place on 24 May before a tribunal chaired by Joseph Borg.

The same applicant – Joseph Schembri – filed a nearly identical application on an ODZ site measuring 27,104 square metres, around four football pitches, in the limits of Burmarrad. 

That application was also the source of consternation among farmers and locals alike and is still awaiting a recommendation from the Planning Authority before it is decided upon.