Editorial | Sunday, 28 March 2010

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Justifying incompetence

As was perhaps predictable, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi responded to Monday’s nationwide blackout – the second of its kind in nine months – by indirectly defending the beleaguered €200 million contract to extend to the Delimara power station.
Speaking on Disset (TVM) last Tuesday, Gonzi suggested that the ‘repeated faults’ experienced at Marsa over the past year – as well as the revelation that a recent magisterial inquiry had unearthed ‘no foul play’, despite an implicit suggestion of sabotage last June – were further proof that the ailing Marsa station needs to be decommissioned without delay.
In all honesty, however, it is surprising that Gonzi should have required a wholesale collapse in Malta’s energy infrastructure to be finally convinced of the need to close down Marsa once and for all. After all, his own government has officially been committed to phasing out this facility ever since the PN was returned to power in 1987... and not without very good reason, either.
Truth be told, the Marsa turbines were already more than 40 years old back in 1987: having been cheaply purchased, already obsolete, soon after the end of World War Two. Furthermore, Dom Mintoff’s Labour government of the 1970s and 1980s had so neglected the same sector that by the end of its 16-year reign, blackouts and water shortages had practically become the order of the day.
Admittedly, this situation has improved somewhat in the intervening 23 years, following at least two major overhauls of Marsa’s ancient equipment. But as we were so starkly reminded last Monday, we are very far from being out of the woods insofar as energy provision is concerned.
Malta’s energy sector has remained altogether primitive and unreliable – and despite a clear commitment to the contrary undertaken in 1987, we are still fully dependent on a dangerously malfunctioning, 70-year-old power plant for our everyday energy requirements.
How did this reversal of fortunes come to pass? The answer has much to do with years of incompetence at the Enemalta Corporation, as well as the government’s regrettable lack of commitment to a National Energy Policy – now officially shelved until after the completion of the Delimara extension, in what appears to be a classic case of ‘putting the cart before the horse’.
Some of the sector’s problems can be traced all the way back to the original construction of the Delimara station, which was initially intended to take over from Marsa completely. So confident was the government of this target back then, that it even argued against a cable connection to Sicily (as some had suggested for purely environmental reasons), reasoning that it would be unwise to place oneself in a position of total dependence on a foreign country for its energy supply.
This argument was graphically vindicated in December 2008, when one of Go’s private underwater cables to Sicily was severed, resulting in connectivity interruptions lasting more than a week. One shudders to imagine the corresponding scenario, if Malta’s only energy lifeline were to suffer the same fate.
But at the same time, there is an inescapable irony in the Nationalist government’s position on this issue. For almost exactly two decades after its completion, the Delimara station has still not taken over from Marsa... and to add insult to injury, government has meanwhile lost sight of this objective, and is now working precisely on the same initiative it once openly pooh-poohed: i.e., an energy cable to Sicily, without which we are told that the extended Delimara station will not suffice to replace Marsa at all.
Meanwhile, work has yet to commence on the long overdue extension of the Delimara plant (which, despite earlier prognostics, is no longer expected to generate enough electricity to obviate the need for the Marsa facility). This assumes considerable significance in the light of the 2015 deadline set by the EU for the closure of Marsa.
The same deadline has also influenced (and to an extent limited) the government’s choice of technology for the Delimara plant: for we now know that, with only five years to go, it will no longer be possible to convert to the cheaper (and cleaner) use of natural gas as a start-up fuel.
This leaves a choice of only diesel and Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) – and by opting for the latter, government may well have saved money in the short time, only to end up spending more on treating and exporting the associated hazardous waste.
From this perspective, it is at best audacious for the Prime Minister to now point towards the mess that is Marsa (for which his own government is responsible) to justify the disaster that is Delimara (over which the same government is currently taking flak).

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Justifying incompetence

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