The answer is (literally) blowing in the wind | Luciano Mule-Stagno

Malta is once again considering offshore windfarms to help meet its renewable energy targets. This time, however, Prof LUCIANO MULE-STAGNO, of the University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, believes that wind power will very soon be fully feasible

Prof. Luciano Mule-Stagno
Prof. Luciano Mule-Stagno

On Xtra recently, Energy Minister Miriam Dalli said that a ‘floating wind farm situated 10 nautical miles off Gozo would supply electricity for Gozo and parts of Malta’. At a glance, this seems strikingly similar to a proposal made by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi over 10 years ago… but which never materialised. Are we once again looking at a pipe-dream? Or have things changed in the meantime: making a once unviable project, viable?

There is a difference between what was being proposed in 2008/9, and what is being proposed today. Back then, the idea was for an offshore windfarm at Sikka L-Bajda, outside Mellieha. Those turbines would have been erected on a platform: so they would have been ‘offshore’… but on platforms that are anchored to the seabed.

The ones being proposed today are, by way of contrast, floating windfarms. Now: what’s the difference, you might ask? When the Sikka l-Bajda project was abandoned, there were several reasons. One was the environment concern: including the threat they posed to seabirds such as the Yelkouan shearwater.

But the other was the cost. This has always been the fundamental underlying concern. I don’t know if you remember, but the first solar panel scheme – around 2005/6 – gave us 28c per kilowatt hour. Compared to the 7c we now pay to Electrogas, it gives you an idea of how expensive renewable energy was, at the time.

Basically, energy generation from those offshore windfarms would have cost quite a bit. I don’t remember the precise figures, but it would have been expensive. Even so, however: at, for instance, 18c per kilowatt hour, it would still have been cheap compared to the renewable alternatives (basically, solar) available back then.

What happened, however, was that by around 2012/13, the cost of photovoltaic panels (PVs) fell drastically, by more than half. In fact, in the next scheme, government lowered the fees for PVS to only 18c.

So if we had implemented the Sikka L-Bajda windfarm back then, it would have been expensive compared to the solar farms that we are now actually building: which work out at between 10 and 14c per kilowatt hour.

This is still higher than generation by the existing power-plant… but it’s getting close.

You mentioned environmental concerns: wouldn’t those also apply to the current proposal?

There will always be some form of environmental issue involved – this is why any project, including this one, would have to go through an EIA – but when it comes specifically to the birdlife issue: the problem with the original proposal was the positioning of the windfarms themselves… which would have been fixed at Sikka l-Bajda: straight in the shearwater’s path.

The advantage of floating windfarms, on the other hand, is that you can place them wherever you like. So if they’re in the path of migratory birds, they can always be moved…

Nonetheless, both Gonzi’s deepwater windfarms and today’s proposal seem to rely on a technology that hasn’t yet been fully developed. Aren’t people justified, then, in being sceptical about the Energy Minister’s claims?

It is true that the technology is not fully mature… yet. But it’s maturing, fast: I would say it’s around four-to-eight years from full maturity. And this is happening worldwide. In fact, around two or three years ago, there was an international conference on offshore wind energy, here in Malta. This generated a lot of excitement and ‘buzz’… and ever since, as the technology continues to develop, the price has consistently fallen.

One other thing that made a big difference was that the EU launched an Innovation Fund for next-generation technology, for trying out new energy ideas. This fund pays the investors – in our case, the commercial partners in that consortium – something like 50 to 60% of the overall cost.

So even if the technology itself is still expensive… well, that’s the whole point of the Innovation Fund. It gives us the chance to try it out anyway; and help to mature the technology.

This has enabled the idea of floating wind farms, of the kind proposed today, to have already been tested; and in some places – like Portugal, and in the North Sea - they have already been installed.

Even if it remains more expensive than conventional methods, for now: there is still a very good chance that, in four or five years’ time, Malta will be able to install offshore windfarms…not just because of the Innovation Fund; but also because they would be commercially viable, in and of themselves.

So yes: it is a viable option today; and it is likely to become more viable in future.

One other question-mark around renewable energy – not just wind, but also solar – is whether it can ever generate enough power to replace more conventional methods altogether. Has technology found a solution to this problem, too? Will we ever become 100% reliant on renewables; and if so, what timeframes are we looking at?

You have to bear in mind that, while wind produces energy – like solar - it doesn’t produce it all the time. Solar, for example, is like clockwork: it starts producing in the morning; peaks at noon; and subsides by evening. And in Malta, it’s quite sunny all year round – the difference, from year to year, works out at only one or two per cent – so the amount of energy generated can be predicted quite accurately.

Wind, on the other hand, is less predictable. Again, Malta is a windy country: but it still depends on when the wind blows: which in turn varies a lot more, from year to year. But then, it has it advantages. There will be times when wind produces as much energy as solar, at the same time; but more importantly, it can also produce energy at night. So it’s a good thing to have a mix of energy sources.

But as to how much energy they produce: that relies mainly on storage. If you have enough storage, the amount of energy you can generate becomes practically unlimited. But storage has its own challenges…

I imagine one of them would be lack of space…

More price than space, I would say. If there was a cheap way to produce batteries, you could take all of the footprint of the Delimara power station – when, in 10 or 20 years, it becomes redundant – and replace it with huge container-loads of battery-banks. It would probably take the same amount of space.

At present, however, the price for lithium batteries remains an obstacle; though it is falling by double-digit percentages every year.  We did a study, not too long ago, which concluded that: given two or three years, it will no longer be as prohibitively expensive as it was at the time.

But it’s not just batteries. There are other technologies: for example, compressed air. In fact, another group at the University of Malta has developed a proprietary technology called ‘FLASC’, designed specifically for offshore windfarms. Basically, it consists of huge underwater vats, which store energy using a hydro-pneumatic liquid piston. Electricity is used to pump water into a closed chamber containing pre-charged air; and the pressurised water is released through a hydraulic turbine to generate power.

So there are available options; but like I said: it always boils down to cost. As long as we manage to keep the price of energy at around 10c per kilowatt hour, it will be viable. We’re not there yet; but we’re getting very, very close.

And there are other sources of alternative energy, too: though not all of them are applicable to Malta’s specific context. We cannot contemplate hydro-electric power, for instance, because we have no mountains or rivers…

We do, however, have the sea; and one other technology that is often mentioned is the generation of power from waves. Is that also being considered, in Malta’s energy-mix?

Actually, we had done a project about 10 years ago – and we’re working on another one today – to measure the wave-resource in Malta. Unfortunately, it’s not ideal in the Mediterranean: compared to, say, the North Atlantic. But it could still be a possibility, in future.

However, solar is here now. Wind is here now. And offshore wind is around four to five years away from being a mature, commercially-competitive technology.

Offshore solar – which are also working on, at the moment – is probably a bit behind that, as we are still at research stage. But again: the technology to place photovoltaic panels on floating platforms is not, in itself, ‘rocket science’. The challenge is to make it cheap.

Wave technology, on the other hand, is probably 10 years away, or more. Because there is no commercially viable wave energy generator on the market, right now…

Coming back to the earlier question about ‘space’: it might not be an issue for energy storage; but it still forces us to consider offshore options instead of land-based ones. There was, however, a proposal to utilise Malta’s roof-space for solar power generation. Has anything come of this idea, in practice?

The official statistics haven’t been published yet; but the original target was to produce 180 megawatts, from rooftop solar panels, by 2020.  To put that into perspective: the Delimara power station produces 200 mega-watts; so we are talking about a significant amount of solar energy.

I’m not sure if we reached that target; but we are definitely very, very close. And there is still a lot of unutilised roof-space available: factories, commercial premises… the Ta’ Qali Stadium… there are so many options. So we could easily add another 100 megawatts, simply by utilising our rooftops more.

Coming back to your earlier question, then, about whether we will ever be 100% reliant on renewable energy: if you fast-forward 20 years, to a time when the technology becomes affordable, and Malta already has offshore windfarms, offshore solar panels, and rooftop solar power generation – together with sufficient storage capacity – then the answer is: Yes. It is possible; in fact, the only thing holding us back, right now, is the cost of storage…

Meanwhile, there are also questions surrounding our current (non-renewable) energy model. Malta’s power station currently relies on a supply of LPG gas; but the government’s application for EU funds, for a second Malta-Italy pipeline, have been rejected: on the grounds that preference is being given to hydrogen. Does this mean we have to now convert our existing plant to a new technology? And if so: isn’t the choice of hydrogen a little arbitrary?

Hydrogen is not a mature technology either, yet. But the EU is pushing in that direction; and so is Japan, the USA, and others. All the same, however, if we’re going to go for a gas pipeline anyway – because that is the plan, regardless of EU funding – making it ‘hydrogen-ready’ would, I guess, hedge our bets.

If hydrogen becomes the next-best thing, and our next power station runs on hydrogen - or, alternatively, is we start using hydrogen to power our cars: which is already a possibility, as companies like Toyota are starting to invest heavily in hydrogen fuel-cell cars – then having a hydrogen-ready pipeline would certainly be a good idea.

Having said this, I am by no means an expert on pipelines; but I suspect that the percentage increase, from an LPG to an LPG+hydrogen pipeline, is not a huge amount. So overall, it makes sense.

And let’s be honest. When it comes to EU funds: if the shape has to be a circle, but what you have is a square… then you make the square fit into the circle…