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Hopes raised for reef wind farm in Mellieħa

The wind monitoring mast at L-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa.

The wind monitoring mast at L-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa.

An offshore wind farm on the Mellieħa reef known as Sikka l-Bajda is “viable”, wind speed studies have confirmed, but two important tests remain before this crucial project can set sail.

The next step is for the government to call on private companies willing to take on this venture to come forward and make their proposals. A call for expressions of interest will be issued this year and the feedback will be a clear indication of the project’s financial feasibility. Once a company is selected, the environmental impact assessments, now under way, will be refined and concluded.

If all the hurdles are overcome, Malta should have its offshore wind farm by 2016, four years before EU countries must ensure 10 per cent of their energy is produced from renewable sources. A wind farm with about 20 turbines will cover 3.24 per cent of this target and over a year will be able to generate 200GWh, the equivalent of the energy used by 40,000 households in a year.

These figures result from a study started in November 2009 through the instalment of an 80-metre high wind mast at L-Aħrax point, which overlooks the reef. The mast recorded average wind speeds of about seven metres per second, above the minimum speed required for a wind farm.

But one important hurdle remains to be overcome.

Last May, marine geologist Aaron Micallef told The Sunday Times seismic studies on the reef showed the appearance of two sinkholes, or underwater caves. Besides being rare and ecologically sensitive, these sinkholes could threaten the stability of the reef and limit the space available for enough turbines to be placed.

Resources Minister George Pullicino said, however, that his experts told him the turbines could be placed around these “small” caves in a way that would not affect the plans. He added the reef was already severely damaged due to bunkering and anchoring.

The wind farm, he said, would help to conserve the area and develop its natural habitat because it would prevent other forms of activities.

Mr Pullicino appealed to people to welcome the wind farms, which, rather than being an eyesore, were a “symbol of sustainable development”.

However, he warned, electricity generated from renewable sources would be more expensive than oil.

“Any politicians giving the opposite impression are basically saying rubbish. Any secondary school student could contradict them.”

Malta, he said, had to invest in renewable energy not to reduce electricity bills but to cut carbon dioxide emissions and pollution.

The European Commission on Monday singled out Malta as the member state which was not making any tangible progress to reach binding renewable energy targets by 2020. It noted the island was still planning to reach its commitments in less than 10 years’ time, even though the progress made so far was “disappointing”.

Asked about the 2020 EU targets, Mr Pullicino said Malta was the only country aiming to surpass its aim. But such ambitions depended on projects like that of Sikka l-Bajda.

Malta required an energy mix which also utilised sun and waste, he added. One aspect that should be explored in the future, he said, was developing energy from waste dumped in the engineered landfill because it could not be processed through the systems now in place. He pointed out that energy could be generated from items like contaminated plastic.

“We are literally dumping our coal,” he said.

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