Sargas chief executive Henrik Fleischer tells Kurt Sansone his power plant could fire up Malta for the future with low-cost electricity and no ­carbon dioxide ­emissions.

Henrik Fleischer is an entrepreneur and like many of his ilk he insists politics is not his business.

I had asked John Dalli to get us an appointment with the government to explain our idea

But when Mr Fleischer landed in Malta last week to give a presentation of what he claims is “a cheap and clean energy” alternative, he stepped right into the middle of a highly-charged political debate on electricity bills.

The Labour Party is promising to cut electricity rates if it wins the next election and the government is insisting that such a blanket policy will reintroduce expensive subsidies in the energy sector.

With consumers currently paying the highest ever utility bills, it is no wonder that a highly technical subject becomes a battleground for politicians. And Mr Fleischer is not oblivious to this.

His very own idea of a power plant run on coal and biomass with modern carbon capture technology and a promise to almost halve the cost per unit of electricity was the cause of political recriminations in the run-up to the Budget.

It all started with the Labour Party accusing Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi of ignoring the project that had been presented to him at least 18 months ago by Mr Fleischer, in what came to be known as the “John Dalli plan”.

For weeks people were left wondering what this plan to reduce electricity rates was and how EU Commissioner John Dalli featured in it.

Mr Fleischer explains that Mr Dalli is his friend. The two got to know each other a couple of years ago when the former Nationalist Party minister acted as a consultant to Mr Fleischer’s company Sargas.

This fact had emerged in a 2007 interview with The Sunday Times when Mr Dalli was presented as an adviser to Sargas. He gave up his consultancy work after being appointed EU Health Commissioner.

But how is Mr Dalli linked to the recent proposal?

“I had asked him to get us an appointment with the government to explain our idea and that is as far as his involvement in this project goes,” Mr Fleischer says.

He adds that officials from Sargas met the Prime Minister in July last year and they then met Enemalta.

“We have had an excellent dialogue with Enemalta where we presented our proposal and a pre-feasibility study,” Mr Fleischer says, adding that the energy company was asking questions like all “sceptical potential buyers” do.

He says Enemalta is concerned with the cost, the feasibility and the efficiency of his proposal but insists detailed and clear answers can only be given if a full-scale feasibility study is carried out.

The study, Mr Fleischer says, will only take between three and six months to carry out but this has turned out to be the sticking point that has dragged on for months.

“We are waiting for Enemalta to tell us whether we should go-ahead with a feasibility study but they informed us that such a decision had to be taken upstairs,” Mr Fleischer says.

Upstairs refers to the political level and it is there where the Norwegian entrepreneur believes the matter is stuck.

The Finance Ministry on Friday said Enemalta was still carrying out a technical evaluation of the concerns it raised on a number of issues that came out from Sargas’s pre-feasibility study.

It will only be after this evaluation is complete that a decision whether to commit to a feasibility study will be taken.

A 2008 report by environmental group Greenpeace was highly critical of carbon capture technology as a solution to climate change. The report, titled ‘False Hope’, said carbon capture technology was widely promoted by the coal industry as a justification for the construction of new coal-fired power plants.

It said the technology was “largely unproven and will not be ready in time to save the climate”.

But on Friday in a half-day seminar attended by businessmen, politicians and environmentalists Mr Fleischer also brought along Paal Frisvold, the chairman of Norwegian-based environmental group Bellona Foundation to justify his case.

Mr Fleischer insists a similar plant already works in Stockholm, Sweden, burning “a paste” made up of coal and 32 per cent biomass made from olive pits.

“My company has been perfecting this technology for nine years and our partners, Korean company Daewoo and US company SNC are prepared to guarantee it works,” he says, adding these are public traded companies with a reputation to protect.

He says the project is not an experiment, a claim backed by environmentalist Edward Mallia who told The Times on Friday that the proposal “merits serious consideration”.

Mr Fleischer insists he has full confidence that his project will provide Malta with low-cost electricity at 7c5 per unit.

He says the consumer price would eventually depend on the type of agreement Enemalta reached with Sargas.

The power plant will be built in Korea and shipped on a barge for eventual dry-docking near the Delimara power station. It will cost €800 million to build, a cost Mr Fleischer says will be recouped through a power purchase agreement with Enemalta over a span of years.

No coal particles will be flying around, he insists, since it will be transported and stored in a closed system. Carbon dioxide will then be captured in pressurised containers for eventual export and storage in disused Danish off-shore oil fields.

“If the plant is used to supply all the base load energy Malta needs, the country will outperform EU carbon dioxide emission standards and can actually even export electricity to Italy rather than import it,” he says.

ksansone@timesofmalta.com

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