Times of Malta, 23rd July 2008 – Editorial

At the launch of the Union for the Mediterranean in Paris, the Prime Minister returned to his promise to invest in a 75-100 MW deep offshore wind farm 20 miles off Malta to be constructed in the next five years. However bold this project may look, such an announcement raises many questions.

First of all, it does not seem that the engineering technology to build such a wind farm already exists and, indeed, there are doubts it may ever be viable. Then, there are the costs involved – if the project were technologically feasible – that are likely to be so high they would divert very limited financial resources from more practical alternatives, unless some form of funding from other sources is secured.

A recent independent, public policy think-tank report put the situation succinctly: “Deep-sea far-offshore wind energy is an untried technology still in development. Added to the delay until such technology becomes practicable, there will be further delays because by then, waiting times for delivery will have lengthened owing to the increasing global demand for renewable energy technology. The true cost of electricity generated by such a method is unknown but it will almost certainly be very expensive. At this time, such an option is of no immediate potential”.

In the circumstances, a more pragmatic approach would have been preferred. For example, the technology of land-based wind farms is economically feasible in comparison to other renewable energy technologies. It is also immediately available and fully developed. The key issue in an island the size of Malta, which is already intensively built up and with few open, unspoilt natural landscapes left on which wind turbines could effectively be placed, however, is whether the impact of turbines, which are about 90 to 100 metres tall, would be visually too intrusive and, hence, unacceptable.

Reactions to established wind farms abroad have been divided, with some deeming them impressive and others ugly. Before deciding, the government will need to weigh carefully the significance, character, quality and aesthetic value of the local landscape for the sites selected and the impact on the local community. This will include the impact of noise and infra-sound nuisance, light interception and any reduction of property values in the area. The impact on, and proximity to, sites designated as protected areas, including the supplementary damage to the landscape caused by the construction process through the provision of access roads, additions to electricity pylons and buildings for electricity transmission, will also need to be weighed.

To say that finding acceptable sites for wind turbines in Malta or Gozo is not easy is not to duck the need for the urgent introduction of viable renewable energy sources. Onshore wind farms may become necessary in the not-too-distant future and suitable sites might be identified too. Yet, other measures can be taken till then. Solar energy, for example, provides a more realistic and proven solution. The potential generation of electricity from domestic roof-top photovoltaic systems connected to the grid is enormous.

The government needs to get real about this issue by providing generous incentives to domestic electricity users to invest in photovoltaic energy rather than embarking on expensive and high-blown schemes which do not yet exist.