Expect power outages to continue as old diesel plants at Delimara are overworked

In a detailed explanation Enemalta says it is relying on aged gasoil plants at Delimara to meet electricity demand after losing interconnector’s flexibility • Undersea cable 'severely damaged'

Enemalta CEO Jason Vella explaining the power generation sources used by the company
Enemalta CEO Jason Vella explaining the power generation sources used by the company

Enemalta is depending on two aged gasoil plants at Delimara to maintain electricity supply after the interconnector sustained fatal damage last week, company officials said.

The gasoil plants, parts of which are 25 years old, have been the primary cause of the power outages over the past few days as some of the turbines failed.

Enemalta CEO Jason Vella said the probability of “something going wrong” would increase in January when the demand for electricity increases.

The peak demand this month has reached 390MW and this could increase to 450MW by January.

The company has taken a precautionary step to increase the spinning reserve – engines that will be running without producing electricity – to ensure the downtime during an outage is kept to the minimum possible. This measure is costing the company an additional €150,000 per day.

Vella was addressing a press conference along with other top officials from the company, including chairman Kevin Chircop.

This was the first time that Enemalta gave a detailed explanation of the frequent power outages that have occurred since the blackout two days before Christmas when the interconnector to Sicily was damaged at sea.

Vella explained that without the interconnector, Enemalta was relying exclusively on power generation sources at Delimara, which had the capacity to satisfy peak demand.

These include the new Electrogas power station (D4) and the BWSC plant (D3), both of which run on gas.

However, the company is also relying on the diesel-operated turbines known as D2A and D2B, which can produce a combined 180MW. The oldest of these turbines was commissioned in 1994.

According to information disseminated to journalists, in three of the instances when electricity was out over the past week, the problems occurred because of a failure to these old turbines. In another instant, one of the engines of the Electrogas plant experienced a fault.

MaltaToday had arrived at this conclusion earlier in the day in a detailed explainer.

Vella explained that in a context where no electricity could be imported through the interconnector, whenever an engine failed, the system automatically shuts down electricity in certain areas to avoid further damage. In technical terms this is called load shedding.

“This happens to avoid damage until the demand is met by starting other engines. Engines take their time to ramp up,” Vella explained, adding that in most instances electricity was fully restored within 15 minutes.

In normal circumstances failure of an engine would not necessarily shut down parts of the system because the drop in production can easily be substituted by increased electricity uptake from the interconnector.

“The interconnector acts as a shock absorber of sorts in case of engine failure because it receives electricity from multiple other sources across Europe. Without it our grid becomes isolated and prone to these outages in case of engine failure,” he explained.

Vella said all engines in the Electrogas and BWSC plants were in working order and available whenever Enemalta required their output.

No timeframe yet for interconnector repairs

Enemalta is not yet in a position to determine how long the interconnector will be out.

Weather-permitting, a survey ship is expected to reach the location where the damage happened, on Sunday, 5 January. The survey is expected to last three days.

“The interconnector sustained severe damage but it is only after the information from this survey is in hand that we will know the extent of it and possibly how long it will take to repair. What I can definitely say it will not be a matter of days,” Vella said.

The survey operation is expected to cost the company €1 million.

This means that with most factories returning from their shutdowns in January, the company will increase its reliance on the old diesel engines, which in turn will increase the probability of failure in the system.

Enemalta chairman Kevin Chircop said the Energy Ministry was carrying out an analysis of the country’s energy needs for the next 15 years, which would determine when a new energy plant was needed and what technology to adopt. “The study will project demand and determine whether we need another interconnector, another gas plant or batteries,” Chircop said.

Asked about the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association’s call this evening for compensation over the frequent power outages, Chircop said that Enemalta would assess any claims on an individual basis as per energy regulations.