Denmark, that rightly considers itself to be a small country though much larger than Malta, responded to the first oil crisis by investing in renewable energy, particularly wind energy in a big way. Today, wind energy technology is Denmark’s major export. There is no reason why Malta could not have followed a parallel path.
The reasons why it did not are many and varied. In the early 1970s we were in the midst of political upheaval, we lacked the scientific culture, know-how and can-do attitude that fired up the Danes, we also lacked the vision.
Our focus at the time was on providing jobs for people. Anything would do. Billions of liri must have been wasted on infrastructural works of which no trace remains or which have since had to be redone completely. Several of the industries established at the time have long since vanished, overwhelmed by the disappearance of the protectionism on which they depended and undermined by the underutilised and inefficient second-hand plant and equipment on which they were based. Reaching out for alternative energy technology seemed too risky and newfangled for the bosses at the time. Besides there was construction in which to engage people.
Construction remained the staple also in the 1990s and remains so today regardless of the publication of the 2005 Census of Population and Housing which documents a 50,000 housing unit surplus that can never be occupied. Tens of thousands more housing units have since been constructed.
What has that to do with energy and renewable energy in particular? It explains the vision. While our Prime Minister polishes his ribbon-cutting scissors for the wind farm launch he can look out of his office window in the Auberge de Castille to view the tangle of building spreading as far as the eye can see. The ups and downs in the cityscape mark the idiocy of relaxing height limitations all over the country to spur construction as it faltered a few years ago. Multi-storey development means that there is less roof space per housing unit and more often than not the neighbouring properties are also put in the shade. While our political class hails the onset of the renewable energy age, it is still busy making solar exploitation as difficult as possible. The mistakes of the past are projected into the future to remain a permanent liability.
We did not need to build so many housing units and building them creates a larger number of energy inefficient properties some of which could easily have become energy self-sufficient. We lack the vision still.
An energy policy for Malta should not only mean the identification of the renewable/conventional energy mix, whether to invest in a submarine cable to the European grid and a host of other energy specifics items but also the holistic involvement of other policy areas, notably construction regulation, which could make or break such a policy.
The tower blocks that put their neighbours in the shade and deprive them of the opportunity of saving on their energy bills through the use of solar water heating or photovoltaic panels are a symbol of our governments in default. Rather than expressing preferences for wind over solar energy, the function of government should be to make things possible and to prevent them becoming impossible.
Setting a fair price for the purchase of electricity by Enemalta is the key. From then on it becomes a matter for entrepreneurs and their technical experts to decide which options to choose. In the case of the larger projects of which we can have very, very few, government function should be to define the limits of the possible within which developers can act; clear transparent and definite limits. It should not be the government to decide whether we should invest first or most in wind, solar, waste-to-energy, wave or sea current renewables. All we need the government for is to give the go ahead by setting a price. Instead of claiming pride of place as a mover and shaker when it fact it has been responsible for a delay of decades, the government would do well to put the ribbon-cutting scissors away for good and fulfil its basic function.