Reef selected close to shore -- Malta changes its mind

In an abrupt change of policy, the government of Malta has suddenly revived plans for a near-shore wind power plant and is exploring the possibility of smaller onshore installations, having dismissed such ideas two years ago in favour of deep-water sites. The news came last month as part of the 2009 national budget when it was announced that Sikka l-Badja (White Reef), two kilometres off Malta's north coast, had been chosen as the site for the country's first wind energy plant, "following the completion of all necessary evaluations."

The planned wind farm would provide electricity for around 21,000 households, representing 4% of consumption, according to the government. It will be built in association with the private sector. To pay for this and other green initiatives introduced in the budget, the government intends to set up an "alternative energy fund," financed by increased duties on petrol and diesel of EUR 0.035 and EUR 0.02 per litre, respectively.

Site controversy

The choice of site has already come under criticism from various quarters. Although the sea bed at Sikka l-Badja is only around 25 metres deep, making it relatively accessible for construction work, environmentalists point out that it lies only two kilometres from an important breeding colony of yelkouan shearwaters. BirdLife International is calling for a two-year impact study. At the same time, industry experts argue that there are better, more exposed shallow-water sites and that it would be cheaper and quicker to build smaller onshore plant first of all.

Wind power in Malta has had a chequered history. In 2006, the Ministry for Resources Authority called for expressions of interest to install 75-100 MW around 32 kilometres off the coast in depths of 50-100 metres. The ministry ruled out sites less than 20 metres deep and also refused to consider onshore development, arguing that the islands were too crowded and that the turbines would spoil the countryside. Given that such deep-water technology was not available then, critics claimed the government was merely going through the motions. Nevertheless, nine international consortia responded, but nothing much has happened, until now.

In recent months, however, the government has been dusting off its green credentials, spurred in part by rising oil prices and the proposed EU target of 10% of Malta's energy to be generated from renewable sources by 2020. In 2006, just 0.36% of Malta's energy use was provided from renewable sources, the lowest in the EU, along with Cyprus.

The next step at Sikka l-Badja is an environmental impact study and public consultation, followed by a request for expressions of interest. Even if there are no delays, it is unlikely the project will get off the ground before 2012. At the same time, the government says it is still considering linking into the European grid and is keeping an eye on developments in deep-water technology.

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