Interview | Sunday, 21 June 2009
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Afraid of the dark

Urging the government to get cracking on the introduction of a national energy policy, former Enemalta chairman JOSEPH ELLUL VINCENTI airs his interpretation on what could have led to last Tuesday’s nationwide blackout

At 78, Joe Ellul Vincenti is still as sharp as a tack. In his day he practised as both an architect and a chartered electrical engineer. Upon retirement, he decided to pursue his passion for the arts, reading for a diploma in ceramics at MCAST. He is still very passionate about alternative energy, albeit his disillusionment with government delays in creating a comprehensive national energy policy may hinder the realisation of his dream to build a wind park in Marfa.
“I have been interested in alternative energy for a very long time now,” he says. Nine years ago, a firm owned by Ellul Vincenti and a Swedish specialist company had applied with the Malta Resources Authority for the construction of a wind park at Wied Rini – a site just off Ċirkewwa, which has now been short-listed by government as potentially viable for such a project.
“I spoke to various ministers about my plans, and I have been encouraged to go ahead and apply because I was reassured that my idea fell in line with what government was after. But nobody has given me the green light yet. After all this time, our partners have undertaken projects in Sicily, Germany, Poland and South America, while in Malta, all we can do is wait.”
He argues that studies carried out by his company reveal Wied Rini as a viable option for a wind park due to its proximity to Gozo, which presently receives its electricity supply from Delimara and is therefore subject to inefficiencies due to transmission losses.
“Besides, the area requires a huge load of electricity as it lies close to five hotels, a sewage treatment plant, and a reverse osmosis facility. The site is also distant from habitation, it is on government land and it is close to high voltage cables.
“Wied Rini is easily accessible by sea, and this might be an important requirement for the transportation of towers and rotors, as these may be too large to be transported via Maltese roads. Another important thing is that the site catches prevailing northwest winds.”
But until government adopts a clear policy in this regard, Ellul Vincenti can’t move forward.
“The application submitted in 2001 with the MRA is for a 25 Megawatt park,” he said. “In 2003 we submitted a MEPA application for 12 turbines of 2.75 Megawatts each. This would supply 4% of Malta’s maximum electricity demand.”
Ellul Vincenti became drawn to alternative energy back in his Enemalta days in the 1990s, even though the price of crude at the time only ranged between US$12 and US$17 per barrel.
“Alternative energy was not important until crude oil prices started rising during the Gulf war,” he said. “Other countries talk about hydro-electric energy and this concept may work in a very economical manner in areas with rivers and mountains. In some countries, we find pumped water stations to store water at high altitudes. During peak hours, the water is released for the flow to power turbines.”
Ellul Vincenti finds wind energy as the most viable option for Malta because “photovoltaic cells require extensive space and they’re still very expensive to set up because they haven’t yet found a way of cheapening the technology. Granted that the initial investment for wind energy is high, but maintenance is low.”
Households and firms producing alternative energy by means of wind the sun or other have the opportunity to sell access energy to Enemalta. For every unit sold, they get a unit in credit which is then deducted from their bills. Many however argue that the buying rate for energy is far too low when compared to the three units given in credit in other countries.
“I think it is high time for Enemalta to offer a good buying rate, seeing that this issue has been mentioned many a time,” Ellul Vincenti says in agreement. “The current buying rate does not really encourage people to sell alternative energy. We must therefore focus on what is in the national interest, rather than what is in the interest of Enemalta. We depend on fossil fuel to generate electricity in Malta, which we need to buy using hard cash. But we, as a country, would obviously benefit if we were to reduce our importation of oil. This does not necessarily mean that Enemalta would benefit too. Enemalta’s job is to sell energy, not to buy it. It is not in its direct interest to purchase energy.”
How guilty is Enemalta with regard to the nationwide blackout last Tuesday?
“There can be no guarantee that this incident will not happen again,” he said. “This has happened in the past, and not only in Malta. We know of the New York baby-boom 10 months after a mass blackout had affected the entire city...
“What must also be said is that the Marsa power station uses antiquated turbines. After World War II, the US government had offered money to certain countries so that they can develop their infrastructure as Europe had been left in tatters after the war. I am here referring to the Marshall Aid programme. No such funds were given to Malta, as we had to get our funding through England. But the US government had funded Sicily with a power station whose technology was underdeveloped and the Italians did not want the turbines anymore. Mintoff was given these turbines and we are still using them after 60 years...”
How the Enemalta maintenance team manages to keep the Marsa power station running remains a mystery.
“But they deserve credit for it,” he said. “Workers at the Marsa power station are exceptionally talented. Many of them are ex-Drydocks workers, and if a turbine needs a part that is out of production, they will build it themselves.”
Most turbines at the Marsa power station use thermal technology, which involves oil heating to produce steam for the generation of turbines.
“From the moment you turn on these turbines until when you get electricity, it takes about six to seven hours,” Ellul Vincenti explained. “But at one point, before I was Enemalta chairman, a gas turbine was purchased. The advantage of such a turbine is that, at the push of a button, you get electricity within 15 minutes. From what I can gather, it was this turbine which developed a fault last Tuesday. Now, gas turbines are expensive to run because, notwithstanding the name, they are diesel powered. It is for this reason that the gas turbine at the Marsa power station is only used during peak hours. While this turbine was in operation, there must have been an outage at some point or other, leading to the load being transferred onto a turbine that could not take it. This in turn tripped and moved its load unto others, which tripped again. A domino effect was created. The turbines at Marsa all tripped, and when this happened the entire load was transferred to Delimara – which could not take it either. Why the gas turbine developed a fault, I do not know, and probably not even Enemalta will know until investigations are concluded.”
So what we’re saying is that if one turbine trips, instead of the load falling onto a fall-back system, we end up without electricity for a whole day. Isn’t this a shame?
“I was one of those who suffered due to the blackout. Because I study and produce ceramics, I use a kiln at home. I decided to load it while there was no electricity, so that by the time the power came back, I could just start it while it’s loaded. But as I did, there was a second black out and this damaged my equipment. This is nothing when compared to all the fridges and freezers which went off in households and at commercial establishments, damaging food. When I worked as an architect, I constructed a number of chicken farms, which today use incubators for chickens to lay their eggs. Once those incubators become powerless, egg production comes to a halt. Many people suffered.”
Enemalta Chairman Alex Tranter blames it on force majeur...
“It is not up to me to define force majeur,” Ellul Vincenti reacts.
Should there not be a back-up plan by which, as soon as a fault develops, Enemalta opens its communication lines to advise the public on the course of action? Such a move would have spared the thousands of employees standing like lemons for hours in the hope that power would soon come back.
“In my days, we always wanted this kind of system to be in force, and I’ve always tried but it’s not as easy to implement as it sounds,” he said. “Until you put your finger on why a fault developed, you can never tell how long it will take for it to be repaired. Besides, when there is a fault at the power station, substations start tripping, and in my days, these had to be switched back on manually – taking time. We had started working on purchasing a system called SCADA, a technology which allows for control of substations centrally. I do not know whether this had been bought or otherwise.”
Asked to share his feelings on how government dealt with the recent energy tariff price-hike, Ellul Vincenti said: “As I was not directly involved in this issue, I would not dare pass a comment. However, it must be said that rates could not possibly remain the same. We tried discussing the rates issue even in my days. I was personally in favour of a system whereby those consuming up to a certain threshold, pay a lower rate per unit. This way, those who can’t afford high electricity bills will have the option to benefit from lower rates with lower consumption.”
Ellul Vincenti was also one to propagate the idea of introducing dual tariffs, “with off-peak rates being cheaper than peak rates.”
Defining peak hours may lead to changes in domestic routines, however. Ellul Vincenti contends that Monday mornings tend to classify among the highest peaks, as “so many washing machines are turned on after the weekend.”


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