For many years, the potential of large scale offshore renewable energy development has been touted as part of the wider solution to meeting Malta’s electricity requirements. Proposals were initially made in 2009, where it was suggested that nineteen 5MW wind turbines having a combined capacity of 95MW could be developed on an offshore reef known as is-Sikka l-Bajda, approximately 1.5 km off the coast of Mellieħa.

At the time it was estimated that the project would have contributed towards approximately five per cent of electricity demands, which would have been a significant contribution to Malta’s obligations under the Renewable Energy Directive.  

This proposal was soon abandoned, largely due to visual and environmental concerns, although technical issues, spatial competition, and economic viability had also been cited. The focus shifted towards the low hanging fruit of land-based solar PV installations (PVs), which experienced considerable success. Starting from a trajectory of near to zero per cent renewable energy contributions in 2009, PVs pushed renewable energy generation up to approximately 12% by 2023.

The motivation for investing in renewable energy has always been twofold (i) to reduce emissions and increase renewable energy generation in line with EU decarbonisation obligations and (ii) to ensure more reliable and secure access to electricity that mitigates exposure to international supply chain disruptions.

However, due to growth in both population and tourism, Malta is now reaching a stage where PV uptake risks being offset by rising electricity demand, with the potential that the share of renewable energy in Malta’s overall energy mix may begin to decline.  

For this reason, large scale offshore renewable energy projects are being discussed once more and while there are several renewable energy options to choose from, the preferred technology deemed to be viable has, for the most part, been limited to wind energy. 

Traditionally, issues with offshore wind energy have been of a technical, economic and/or environmental nature – deployment close to shore gave rise to environmental and visual concerns, whereas deployment in deeper waters further offshore rendered conventional fixed structures unviable from a technical and economic perspective.

Fast forward a few years, technology is maturing, and we are now discussing the potential of floating offshore wind turbines (FOW) tied to the seabed in significantly deeper offshore areas.

Fuelled by the increasing global scarcity of suitable locations for fixed bottom projects, FOW is gradually coming of age and stimulating interest in offshore wind development across the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and other sea basins with high water depths. 

Malta is now reaching a stage where PV uptake risks being offset by rising electricity demand- Peter Grima

This technology has been deployed in pilot projects around the North Sea region and larger projects are now coming online, such as the world’s biggest floating wind farm – the Hywind Tampern farm – which recently launched off the west coast of Norway in August 2023, having a combined capacity of 88MW from 11 turbines tied to the seabed. 

It is on the back of such developments that the government of Malta released a National Policy for the Deployment of Offshore Renewable Energy (NPOR) in August this year, with the objective of providing a framework for offshore renewable energy projects and infrastructure within Malta’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) up to 25 nautical miles.

Preliminary studies have been carried out, including 33-year modelled wind resource data, to determine the potential for offshore wind energy generation from a spatial and technological constraint perspective. On this basis, as well as following an evaluation of competing uses within Malta’s territorial sea and EEZ, the NPOR identified six principal sites for the development of offshore renewable energy projects, with the intention of guiding prospective project developers towards the most appropriate sites.

In addition, the NPOR is intended to reduce regulatory and financial risks for potential investors through, among other things, the establishment of a single administrative unit offering guidance and information on the relevant planning, permitting and licensing requirements that any proposed project would need to obtain, as well as any impact assessments that would need to be undertaken.

The specific terms and features of any proposed development will become clearer once the competitive bidding process is launched, although according to the NPOR there will be several different models that FOW development may follow. The main differences between the relevant models relate to the costs of grid connection and whether the burden of responsibility will be on the State or investor or a combination of the two.

Whether a FOW project in Malta’s EEZ will be deemed attractive to both State and investor from an environmental, technical and economic perspective remains to be seen. However, the publication of the NPOR lays down an important foundation for potential investment in FOW as well as other offshore technologies.

The next and possibly more important step is to ensure that the national electricity grid is upgraded to guarantee that local grid infrastructure does not become a bottleneck that could stall potential FOW development and Malta’s green transition ambitions as a whole. 

Peter Grima is a senior associate at Fenech & Fenech Advocates. 

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