It is time to ride the wave

Developing an infrastructure for generating alternative energy is essential. Until such time as the price of oil was low the interest in alternative sources of energy was limited. It was primarily of an academic nature. Various sources of alternative energy are now being tapped.

Solar energy for example has been tapped in various forms. It is used directly in solar water heaters.

It is also transformed into electricity through photovoltaic panels or through the use of parabolic mirrors.

The latter method requires a substantial amount of land which in Malta is simply not available. Experiments on a large scale have been carried out in the Negev Desert in Israel and in the Mojave Desert in California.

The Desertec project developed by a network of scientists, politicians and economists around the Mediterranean seeks to generate sustainable energy. Sun-rich deserts are one of the primary sources under consideration as six hours of sun incident on these deserts has the potential of generating more energy than humankind consumes within a year. This is just the first step in a long process which will eventually seek to not only generate electricity but also transport it over thousands of kilometres as well as to store it for use during the dark hours.

The technological challenges are just one of the important hurdles to overcome.

Volatile geo-political tensions on the other hand are a threat to the availability of tapping the desert’s potential just as much as continuous tensions in the Middle East have been governing the oscillating price of oil since the 1970s.

The Sahara Desert in this respect has a huge potential for generating the long-term energy needs of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The issues involved are not just technical, but political and ethical too. In particular there is a danger of creating a new form of colonialisation.

The citizens of countries blessed by the sun have another resource which should be used for their benefit and not simply for the enrichment of others.

The wind’s potential has been tackled in various regions of the world. This has brought about developments in the technology used. Recently the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, for example, has been considering the potential use of a floating wind farm.

This emergent technology has huge potential as it can help overcome problems associated with the technology available to date which requires embedding or anchoring the masts of the wind turbines to the seabed. Technical developments are emerging by the hour. This is logical as the escalating price of oil creates a demand for alternatives.

Less than 12 months ago a Maltese/Danish consortium Dexawave Energy Malta launched a test project to gauge the potential of generating electrical energy from waves in Maltese waters. This research project was supported by Malta Council for Science and Technology with funds from the National Research and Innovation Programme. The Physical Oceanography Unit and the Institute of Sustainable Energy of the University of Malta were involved.

The project’s viability requires waves of a height between two and three metres for 2,000 hours over a one-year period.

Initially a small-scale experimental wave convertor was set up in Marsascala. The project is now in an advanced stage and it is now planned to have a farm of 20 wave convertors which will generate about 5 megawatts of electricity, this being the equivalent to the energy used by 1,600 households.

A suitable site has been identified in northwest Gozo just off the coast of Żebbuġ.

This is good news. Once the economics are analysed the fruits of this project can complement other projects and initiatives which aim to generate sustainable energy. Its potential impacts are limited to overlapping with fishing grounds and/or maritime lanes. In addition there could be impacts on biodiversity depending on the selected site.

Wave energy has a great potential. Studies have indicated that the United States has the potential of generating 6.5 per cent of its energy needs through wave energy.

Furthermore, based on 2009 data it is estimated that 12 per cent of the world’s energy needs can be generated through wave and tidal energy.

When one considers that Malta’s draft energy policy dated April 2009 had stated that wave energy does not appear to offer significant opportunites for exploitation on a commercial scale, Dexawave’s proposal to generate wave energy off the coast of Żebbuġ in Gozo is very good news.

Malta’s energy supplies need to be spread to tap the various sources available. All the sources at the end of the day can add up to a substantial amount.

Wave energy, solar energy and wind energy are the energy sources of the future. The Dexawave project is an investment in the future made possible by a proactive research policy of the Malta Council for Science and Technology.

Carmel Caccopardo

published in The Times of Malta March 24, 2012