Editorial | Sunday, 21 June 2009
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The day ‘Smart Island’ stood still

Tuesday’s mammoth power failure has once again illustrated – if further proof were still needed – the sheer precariousness of our national energy production and distribution regime.
Electricity has long been a political bone of contention in this country, and nowhere was this more evident than in the 1970s and 1980s: two decades characterised by frequent interruptions in electricity and water supply (the two being inextricably linked, on account of our national dependence on reverse osmosis plants for water production), which in turn epitomised all that was amiss with the country at the time.
Back then, Opposition leader Eddie Fenech Adami had a field day criticising Malta’s “old” and “tired” government for refusing to make the necessary investment in infrastructure. Furthermore, he correctly reasoned that by failing to guarantee an adequate and dependable electricity supply, the Labour government was also seriously undermining Malta’s prospects of future economic development.
Unsurprisingly, the construction of a new power station topped the list of priorities of the incoming Nationalist government in 1987: and though controversial, the 1992 Delimara plant was instrumental in providing the necessary extra capacity to meet the demands of increased industrial activity in a decade of economic boom.
Ironically, the same Nationalist administration now appears a victim of its earlier success. For the economic advancements of the 1990s also fuelled a demand for new “luxury” accessories such as power-guzzling air conditioning units; but while the demand for power has increased exponentially, supply has remained more or less the same (or at best, increased too slowly to keep up with the times).
The inevitable consequences are not hard to predict, and in fact Enemalta clearly foresaw Tuesday’s fiasco in a report issued three years ago in 2006. By the end of 2007, the report warned, total reserve capacity would not suffice to handle peak demand in summer; and in the event of an accident in any of the two power stations’ main components, large parts of the island would experience power outages.
From this perspective, it must be said that Enemalta’s reaction to this week’s events was little short of astonishing. On Wednesday, corporation chairman Alex Tranter issued a curt and unapologetic statement, in which he made two basic arguments: one, that “Malta has enough reserve capacity to meet peak demand”; and two, that Enemalta “could not guarantee that (Tuesday’s) blackout would not happen again.”
Regarding the first point, Mr Tranter is no doubt technically correct – but then again, the issue at hand has nothing to do with Malta’s reserve capacity, but rather with the substandard quality of obsolete equipment at the Marsa power station – bought cheaply by a Labour government almost 70 years ago after World War II, and never replaced during 22 years of a Nationalist administration.
Having said that, it is Tranter’s second observation that simply beggars belief. A stable and reliable power supply is no longer a luxury. It is now an absolute necessity – more so in a country which has the temerity to market itself as a “Smart Island”, without being “smart” enough to invest in reliable energy sources to begin with.
In such an environment, an erratic and unpredictable power supply system will almost certainly translate directly into loss of foreign investment, especially of the IT-related variety (which, ironically, we are also trying to attract).
Therefore, by so candidly admitting that Malta cannot provide the basic infrastructure necessary for such industries to even operate, Enemalta’s chairman has single-handedly undone all the government’s good work in attracting such investment to Malta in the first place.
Besides, Tranter has also raised an inevitable issue of accountability. If the current power generation regime is incapable of meeting even the most basic requirements of a nation, then... why is it being retained? Why are those responsible – both politically and from a management perspective – not being held to account? And above all, why has it taken us so long to address the painfully inadequate technology currently in use at Marsa?
These and other questions will sooner or later have to be answered, especially if – as Enemalta’s own report suggests – Tuesday’s incident is destined to repeat itself this summer.

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The day ‘Smart Island’ stood still


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