Sunday Times of Malta, 18 May 2008 –

I sometimes feel that Malta is like a frog in a pot of water placed on a stove. The frog does not feel threatened by the gradual increase in temperature and does not jump out of the pot, even if it can easily do so. It stays there, it will not try and jump out until it is too late.

Malta is a country that is completely dependent on oil for electricity, water production and transportation. The price of oil has now reached a record high of $127 per barrel, and it is envisaged that it may reach the $200 mark by the year’s end. Even worse is the fact that it is unlikely that it will ever go down again to past levels.

Needless to say this will have a huge bearing on our quality of life, on our competitiveness as a country, and ultimately our survivability.

We are the laggard of Europe where it comes to sustainable energy generation and consumption. Which is ironic when one considers that it costs us much more to produce a unit of electricity and a unit of water than any other country in the EU.

Apart from fiddling with the calculation of the surcharge, it seems that our government is powerless to do anything about the situation. Admittedly the price of oil is outside of anybody’s control, but did we have to be totally dependent on this diminishing resource for our very survival?

One way of reducing dependency on fossil fuels is to invest in renewable energy. And yet government had (has?) an inexplicable bias against renewables. I recall EU Energy Commissioner Andris Pielbags’s visit to Malta two years ago, urging us to get our act together. A few months later, the Commission cut short our allocation of emissions from our power stations for the period 2008-2012, which, in practical terms means that we have to limit the generation of electricity from our power stations or face fines.

At around the same time, in an effort to save face with our EU counterparts, we started toying with the idea of deep-sea offshore wind farms. The Malta Resources Authority spent a huge amount of time and taxpayers’ money studying this still-to-be-developed technology and eventually informed us that it is still not commercially available, something which we all knew from day one.

Let us be frank. The proposed technology is not yet available and is unlikely to be in the near future. Even if/when it becomes available, electricity from deep-sea offshore wind farms in open seas and uncharted wind conditions will not come cheap. There is also the financial and technological risk to be considered. What happens if this multi-million euro investment fails? How are we going to reach our 10 per cent-renewables-by-2020 target with only a couple of years to spare?

I advocate a back-to-basics approach that invests in the participation of the whole population. There is a lot of waste that can easily be curbed through education and properly thought-out fiscal incentives, in all sectors.

I draw an analogy with what happened in the water sector in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the time, Malta invested heavily in Reverse Osmosis (RO) technology. We started pumping millions of cubic metres of high-quality water into a water network riddled with holes. By 1994, the amount of non-accounted-for water stood at a staggering 60 per cent! When the leaks were repaired, we found ourselves in a situation of having surplus RO production capacity. Wouldn’t it have been wiser to repair the leaks in the first place?

By the same reasoning, doesn’t it make more sense to invest in reducing consumption and energy-efficiency measures before investing millions of euros in additional generating capacity? Failing to curb consumption now will result in a situation where we would be discussing further investments in generating capacity in the near future, over and over again.

Unfortunately, we seem to be moving in the wrong direction. Two weeks ago we were informed that the government decided to end the rebate scheme on energy-efficient appliances. Finance Minister Tonio Fenech was quoted as saying that “the government is concentrating on energy-saving lamps to bring about a change in mentality in this sector”. Yet a single small air-conditioning unit consumes as much electricity as 30 incandescent light bulbs.

A huge amount of energy is lost in buildings. Yet the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive came into force in Malta (as Legal Notice 238 of 2006) in 2007, one year after it was supposed to. We are now facing a situation where our new building stock will be an energy liability for decades to come.

If these are indications of things to come, I think the frog is well and truly doomed.