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Sowing the wind as the clock ticks

Ilatch on the recent unveiling of three proposed sites for the installation of wind farm operations, one offshore (at Sikka l-Bajda) and two onshore (Ħal Far and Baħrija), to call for an inpassionate debate on renewables to finally kick-start in our islands.

I write this article in my capacity as chairman of the now disbanded Committee on Offshore Wind Energy, set up by the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs and entrusted with the mandate of assessing the feasibility of the site of Sikka l-Bajda for an offshore wind farm.

The Sikka l-Bajda offshore wind farm and the two onshore projects will have environmental impacts, as all other large projects. Such impacts first need to be identified through a comprehensive EIA (environment impact assessment) study and then mitigated through responsible design. A positive environmental offshoot from the Sikka l-Bajda project could be the declaration of the marine area around the turbines as a non-fishing and non-anchoring zone, effectively turning it into a marine conservation area of sorts, something which has been on the cards since 1992! The same marine area is now used as a ship bunkering zone.

Some comments on The Times online are telling. A succint one stated that this is all a waste of money, as if a five per cent contribution to our national electricity needs by the three combined wind projects is a mean feat! Other illuminations included the strident assertion that wind farms are very noisy and ugly. Those installed on a domestic scale do generate noise but the large 0.85MW or the huge 5MW ones generate noise levels which challenge the limits of audition. As to the visual impact issue, this is highly subjective.

I trust that in the debate that will invariably rage over this project, one overriding consideration is kept in focus: Malta is bound by the 20/20/20 European targets with respect to greenhouse gas emissions. More specifically, 10 per cent of the energy needs of our country must be met by renewable sources by the year 2020 (actually, the 10 per cent mark is higher because we are speaking in terms of energy consumed rather than in terms of energy generated). Any eventual defaults of such a target, say by one per cent, would translate in a €900 million penalty according to the Climate Change Committee report published a few months back.

When all three wind farm sites are on stream, they would be offsetting the carbon dioxide emissions released annually by about 130,000 cars, or almost one half of our vehicle fleet. I trust that, in the absence of pro-environmental arguments getting the public excited in these dire economic times, this should be the overriding consideration in any eventual debates.

The government has not discounted alternative wind farm sites nor alternative renewable resources to this effect; solar energy remains firmly on the agenda too. I am one of those who strongly believe that an energy mix is needed to comply with our obligations. Wind power on a large scale remains the most economically-feasible renewable source of energy, much more than solar energy. However, having an offshore or onshore wind farm does not exclude investments in solar or in other sources. The fee paid by Enemalta to those who feed into the national grid energy derived from photovoltaic cells remains miserably low, for example.

But let's keep our feet on the ground. Exploring alternatives, such as current, wave or geothermal energy, should be encouraged but this will not stop the clock from ticking. Hence, while such research ensues, some decisions must be made at this point in time. A mature and responsible debate is called for at this stage. Let's not allow this umpteenth opportunity to be squandered by undignified squabbles. Let us allow the technologically-savvy to do the talk.

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