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Solar research for Malta’s renewable energy targets

PV panels create a canopy and cover part of the roof at the wine information centre in Buskett. Photo: Robert Ghirlando

PV panels create a canopy and cover part of the roof at the wine information centre in Buskett. Photo: Robert Ghirlando

How to meet Malta’s renewable energy targets by 2020 was at the heart of the annual conference held by the Institute for Sustainable Energy (ISE) this month.

This year’s keynote speech by Prof. Martin Green from University of New South Wales highlighted solar energy as the only sustainable resource available to the world in enough quantities to provide for future global energy demands. Prof. Green’s visit to Malta was sponsored by the Australian High Commission.

Although wind energy has increased tenfold in the past decade there are still some financing and supply chain issues. On the other hand, photovoltaic (PV) panels have exceeded all expectations.

According to Prof. Green, it is likely that by mid-century, PV panels could be producing 25 per cent of primary energy. Efficiency of solar panels is ever on the increase as rival universities and research labs compete in the push for ultimate performance.

For large-scale solar farms on abandoned land, such as disused World War II airfields in Germany, it is expected that installation costs will see a sharp drop. At the same time, efforts are turned toward finding non-toxic elements more suitable for the manufacture of solar panels. As a sustainable technology, PV must eventually switch to more environment-friendly materials.

In hot and humid conditions, as we often experience in Malta, thin-film cadmium-indium-selenide (CIS) technology may prove to be a good choice for local applications.

Being shadow tolerant gives this technology an edge over crystallised silicon panels. Partial shade during some of the day will not lead to collapse of the system. Stable performance even in reduced light conditions makes for a low-maintenance panel with less need for frequent cleaning in dusty environments or in coastal areas exposed to salt spray.

Backed by Shell-Aramco, thin-film CIS PV modules have undergone extensive testing at the world’s largest PV research laboratory in Japan. Currently testing is under way at a field in Siġġiewi to see how well this type of panel functions in the Maltese climate. A pilot project to instal CIS panels in the open space next to a runway at Malta International Airport is being discussed.

Upgrading panels may be necessary every five to 10 years to keep up with the target. More recently installed modules have a longer lifetime than some of the older types installed

Since setting up six years ago, the ISE master’s degree course in sustainable energy has to date produced 50 graduates, now all working in key areas. ISE director Luciano Mule Stagno gave an overview of a number of different studies on alternative energy being carried out at the University of Malta with the help of local sponsors and EU funding.

One such research project makes use of dynamic modelling to look at how a hydraulic system may do away with the need for gearboxes and electric generators in wind turbines in the near future.

In a final-year thesis the expected lifetime of PV panels already installed was calculated. The aim was to forecast how Malta’s EU renewable energy targets could be consistently met and to filter out low-quality designs and materials so that the island would not fall behind.

Installation of replacement panels must keep up with the rate at which solar panels degrade in the Maltese climate. The Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority recently published a standard in relation to this. It must be kept in mind that upgrading of some panels may be necessary every five to 10 years to keep up with the target.

Photovoltaic systems are not maintenance free, contrary to what some suppliers may claim. More recently installed modules have a longer lifetime than some of the older types installed at an earlier date.

Another study highlighted some aspects of PV panels used for cooling grape juice at the oenology and viticulture centre in Buskett. Getting the temperature right is crucial to a successful fermentation process.

A case study in Gozo showed how it was possible to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 75 per cent at a small hotel in Qala. Replacing electricity with gas in the kitchen, using heat pumps and photovoltaic panels on the roof and facade were all that was needed.

The hospitality sector is a high consumer of energy, which is often due to bad design. Large energy savings can be had when architects make it a point to work together with engineers at the design phase.

Istanbul’s technical university has delved into how to protect sensitive goods in cold storage from unexpected breakdowns while consuming less electricity. Another presentation dealt with innovations in energy-saving roof tiles developed at Italy’s University of Ferrara.

With the help of EU funding, this past year has seen a compete refurbishment of the solar research laboratory at Marsaxlokk and new equipment has been installed. This has made it possible for the institute to pursue funding opportunities for future projects.

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