The secure supply of energy which is affordable and ac­cessible is a challenge for modern-day society. This, coupled with efforts to reduce carbon emissions in the face of growing demand, is driving ongoing investments in research and innovation (R&I) in the area of renewable energy technologies. It is thus occupying centre stage on the research agendas at national and regional level.

In Europe the Strategic Energy Technologies (SET) Plan is defining the roadmap for research in this area and is mirrored at a national level in research strategies of member states. Energy and environment are key priorities identified in Malta’s National Strategic Plan for R&I (2007-2010) and indeed a number of collaborative industry-academia projects have been funded in recent years through the Malta Council for Science and Technology-run national R&I programme including a system that produces electricity from wave energy and an energy-efficient prototype for treatment of urban municipal waste for water self-sufficiency in public gardens.

The Malta Council for Science and Technology, which is currently preparing to unveil the R&I plan for 2011-2020, will be retaining energy and environment not only as national priorities but as grand societal challenges which require dedicated strategies and concerted efforts across the research, innovation and commercialisation chain. Malta’s small size requires that such strategies identify and target niche areas where Malta has a comparative advantage due to local context, competence and/or resources.

A potential niche area currently under exploration is the development of floating photovoltaic devices. These combine a range of competencies in engineering, design and physics. Malta’s proximity to the sea, accessible coastline, relatively calm seas and exposure to sunshine in abundance throughout the year, makes it a prime candidate for piloting such structures.

The advantage of floating PV structures over traditional onshore structures is that they are more amenable to the capture of energy since they can be made much larger without sacrificing Malta’s scarce land. Such structures made up of an array of floating PV panels are being tested in several locations around the world and certain advantages and disadvantages have been identified, notably the developed technology as against the visual impact. Obvious challenges, however, include the effects of corrosion of such systems and the mechanics involved for such systems to survive occasional storms.

Moreover potential environmental impacts of such installations need to be given due attention. Some of these systems are even horizontal, which means less solar incidence but also less visual impact and the possibility of cooling with the seawater they float on, leading to greater efficiency.

From an economic perspective, the potential benefits in terms of cost-effectiveness and increased yield render this a niche area worthy of further investment and possibly comparable to wind energy.

Keeping in mind Malta’s sea and sun resources but acknowledging the challenges that such systems currently face, the Malta Council for Science and Technology has identified floating photovoltaic systems to be a priority worthy of further research and development in the local setting. To address this priority, the council has announced that a sum of around €200,000 will be ring-fenced from the 2012 national research and innovation fund to address research and development of floating photovoltaic systems. Interested applicants are encouraged to apply through the R&I fund that will be launched at the end of 2011 or to contact the Malta Council for Science and Technology on rtdi.mcst@gov.mt.

Dr Pullicino Orlando is chairman and Dr Sammut vice chair and CEO of the Malta Council for Science and Technology.

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