Malta’s energy transition – a slow but promising start

The island of Malta is heavily dependent on oil imports, and could benefit greatly from its own energy transition. Despite some barriers to renewables, solar is booming – and if it continues to do so, Malta should be able to meet its 2020 energy goals. Geoffrey Saliba explains.

windmill in a field in Malta

In ten years, Malta has developed a small but growing renewables sector (Photo by Frank Vincentz, edited, CC BY SA 3.0)

In a recent stakeholder meeting in Malta, EU Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Cañete outlined an EU vision where member states will be fully powered by renewable energy sources. This is an attractive vision – energy security would isolate the EU from geo-political shocks, reduced emissions would benefit air quality in the short term and climate change in the long run, and it would invigorate the EU’s green economy.

Strategically, Malta is well aligned with this vision. Since 2015, its energy supply has been diversified through a bi-directional interconnector with Sicily. An upgrade of electricity production to use gas instead of oil is also underway. Coupled with constant efforts to promote renewables, this has increased Malta’s electricity sources to three, when just 10 years ago the only electricity source was older oil-fueled power stations approaching shut-down.

Apart from improving energy security, the supply upgrades have also greatly benefited Malta’s energy efficiency. The old power plants operated at 27.5% and 31% efficiency respectively, whereas the new gas power plant and the interconnector are set to operate at around 50% efficiency. This is particularly important, as improving the efficiency of generation is critical to Malta meeting its 2020 energy efficiency target of 27%. In 2013, before both new sources were officially included in the country’s energy goals, Malta reported a 6% efficiency – so the lion’s share of the country’s 2020 target will depend on the new source’s higher efficiency margin.

To make up the rest of the efficiency target, a range of additional actions have been planned, three of which are likely to yield the greatest benefits. The first is a widespread targeting of larger energy consuming enterprises, being carried out in projects between the national authority and industry representative bodies such as the Malta Business Bureau.  The second is regular upgrades to the distribution network. The third is encouraging increased purchase of energy efficient appliances by consumers in general, through incentives as well as various positive communications strategies.

The expansion of renewables is also being promoted. The main mechanism is a feed-in tariff, and public interest is high. Yet, as of 2015, only 5% of Malta’s energy was generated through renewables – half of the country’s 10% 2020 target.

Malta’s options for renewable energy are limited. Tidal energy is non-existent, while potential wind and wave energy are very limited. Offshore wind is also limited since the ocean is very deep and unsuitable for offshore wind. Malta has an abundance of solar intensity but limited land mass on which to place solar installation. Most of Malta’s land is already developed or else protected, leaving little land available to dedicate solely to solar installations.

Rooftop photovoltaics are the main source of renewable energy in Malta. As many as 1 in 5 of the residential building stock have a photovoltaic system, excluding apartments, the rooftops of which residents do not normally have permission to use, and vacant premises. Commercial and industrial capacity is just over half of the installed residential capacity, which, coupled with the residential sector, make up 95% of Malta’s PV capacity. The remaining 5% is generated on publicly owned or administered buildings.

The increase of solar installations by the residential sector has been particularly successful, especially considering that in just 7 years, capacity went from nearly zero to over 50% of the national output, with 1 in 5 households owning their rooftop solar installations.

Opportunities for further growth, however, will depend on mobilising increased use of industrial and commercial space. Considering the growing interest in PV by the residential, the industrial and commercial sectors, it is highly likely that Malta will meet and potentially exceed the 2020 renewable energy target of 10%.

Yet for moving beyond the 2020 targets several key challenges exist: Given Malta’s limited free space, dual-use of space, such as rooftop photovoltaic and covering of parking lots, must be prioritized to increase the build-up of the country’s solar energy potential. There have been a small number of successful case studies coupling public land with private funding of large solar projects.

Moving forward, Malta should form agreements allowing the export of energy through the interconnector to Sicily. This would ease one concern of renewables, which is a reluctance to depend heavily on renewable energy during less sunny times. It will also be important to identify technical solutions that cater to Malta’s special case of limited free square meters and limited sources. One possibility for Maltese entities is to develop renewable energy projects in other EU-areas where the potential is higher and to import that energy via the interconnector. This is not currently a policy focus, yet the policy groundwork for this should be laid. Another solution could be a stronger strategic focus on low-energy wind and wave generation, as well as space-conservative solar technologies. To do this, a stronger focus on R&D is needed – this is an area where Malta is very weak, spending less than 1% of GDP on R&D. The share spent on energy-related R&D is insignificant.

Malta entered the renewable energy game relatively late. In just over ten years, the country has modernised its infrastructure in line with an ambitious EU energy vision, developed a small but growing renewables sector, and planned a holistic energy efficiency strategy. The next few years will be crucial for reaching Malta’s targets, yet cautious optimism is advised.

About the author:

Geoffrey Saliba is the Investing in Energy Project Manager within the Malta Business Bureau. He has worked extensively on environmental issues in Malta over the past decade, focusing mainly on energy and water conservation, and supporting nature conservation. His work includes managing the award winning EU LIFE+ Investing in Water Project, the presidency of Malta’s largest environmental NGO – BirdLife Malta, and acting as an advisor to government through the Ornis Committee.


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1 Comment

  1. “The ocean is very deep and unsuitable for offshore wind.” Floating platforms are being trialled off Scotland, and larger projects are being developed in France. Since the oil industry already uses floating drilling platforms, there is good reason to think that this technology is technically feasible, and every hope that it will become so commercially. A great deal of the world’s coastlines – including the Pacific coasts of the USA and Japan and much of the Mediterranean – has next to no continental shelf, so the potential market is large. In addition, floating turbines can in principle be assembled almost entirely in sheltered deepwater ports on an assembly line basis, allowing economies of scale. Malta could get into this promising business.

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