Times of Malta, 7th September 2008, by Francesca Vella –
Sikka l-Bajda, a reef located about two kilometres off Rdum tal-Madonna at Ahrax Point in Mellieha, has been identified as a possible site for the development of a near-shore wind farm. However, the site is already coming under fire from experts in the field, The Malta Independent on Sunday has learnt.

The government is considering this near offshore development two years after the Malta Resources Authority (MRA) issued a call for expression of interest for interested parties to undertake the first offshore wind project in Maltese territorial waters.

The 2006 call for expression of interest excluded near-shore wind farm development. Experts had said that the near-shore sites of Malta and Gozo had been dismissed in the most shoddy and unscientific manner by the MRA.

A spokesperson from the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs said this week that the main purpose for issuing the call in 2006 was to acquire knowledge on deep-water technology, but it was discovered that such technology is still in the development stage.

Back in 2006, then MRA chairman Austin Walker (current chairman of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority), had said that the possibility of wind farm development on land was considered to be unsustainable, due to the country’s size and population density, together with the wind turbines’ negative visual impact.

Engineer Robert N. Farrugia, also from the University of Malta’s Institute of Energy Technology, had said, however, that determining whether wind farm development is sustainable or not requires a holistic evaluation of the technical, environmental, economic and social implications and that generally, project proposals would be evaluated on the basis of their specific merits and shortcomings in these main areas.

Professor Edward Mallia, also from the university’s Institute of Energy Technology, told this newspaper that an onshore wind farm or two would be able to provide about two to three per cent of the present energy demands in less than 18 months from the start of construction.

In reply to questions sent by this newspaper, the ministry spokesperson said that if a decision is taken to install some wind turbines on land, it is expected that their number have to be very limited due to spatial constraints.

This clearly shows that what the government is really interested in is the near-shore project right now.

It seems to have been widely accepted that, to date, commercial wind farms only exist in depths of not greater than 25 metres.

The ministry spokesperson said the government is closely following developments in the field of offshore wind farm technology.

The Beatrice wind farm in Scotland is a pioneer project for prototype testing of wind turbines, with jacket structures at sea depths of about 45 metres.

Two turbines have been installed and measurements are being taken, which will be useful for engineers to re-design more cost-effective structures. It is the only deep-water wind farm of its kind and has been operating since last year.

The government is keeping close contact with the partners of this project as it feels that there are opportunities to be gained from this experience, said the ministry spokesperson, adding that there are ongoing internal discussions and evaluations that are necessary for an informal decision to be made.

“We are hoping that such an announcement will be made during the final quarter of 2008,” said the spokesperson.

Industry sources said that even though Sikka l-Bajda has certain attractions, like a considerable area of seabed within the 25-metre depth line, it is far from the best shallow-water site as far as wind exposure is concerned.

In Gozo, for instance, there is a strip of shallow sea along the northern part of the island, from Qbajjar to San Blas, which is much better exposed to the prevailing northwesterly wind.

An extended set of wind speed measurements made at the Gordan lighthouse already exists, and would be able to give reliable estimates for the Qbajjar-San Blas area.

The Sikka l-Bajda proposal, on the other hand, is expected to come under fire on a number of fronts.

The government would have to commission a study to determine wind speeds and it would also have to assign experts to carry out a complete survey of marine life on the reef.

Moreover, Sikka l-Bajda is just two kilometres away from Rdum tal-Madonna, the main focus for the EU LIFE Yelkouan Shearwater Project as one third of all the Yelkouan Shearwaters in Malta breed there.

Malta is very important for this bird species since an estimated 1,500 pairs are known to breed here, which equals approximately 10 per cent of the world’s Yelkouan Shearwater population.

So before even considering Sikka l-Bajda as a possible site for a wind farm, the government would also have to study the impact that the wind farm would have on the EU LIFE Yelkouan Shearwater project, a partnership between government authorities and conservation organisations.

And, while the man in the street continues to pay utility bills with a 95 per cent surcharge rate, the government’s energy policy, particularly with regard to renewable and alternative sources of energy, continues to leave a lot to be desired.

The government tries to give the impression that everything is under control. It has said that it plans to generate 10 per cent of the country’s required energy from renewable and alternative sources.

But time is pressing, and we hardly seem to be anywhere close to even start achieving that target.

Five to six per cent of the projected 10 per cent target will come from a wind farm, a spokesperson from the Resources and Rural Affairs Ministry told this newspaper.

The government has estimated that with typical local wind conditions, a 75-100 Megawatt wind farm would generate about five to six per cent of the projected 2020 energy demand.

But this too, according to the Institute of Energy Technology’s Prof. Mallia, would not be possible.

“Our grid cannot take a farm of that size. There is a technical point here, tied to the very obvious fact that the wind is variable. The normal power station machinery cannot increase levels of output at short notice.

“So when power from a large farm falls as wind velocity drops, a rapid fall will lead to power cuts as the normal generators cannot follow. On mainland Europe, grids are much larger than ours and they are interconnected.”