11 Jul Interview with Perit David Xuereb, Chairman, Interconnect Malta
Malta’s energy sector has witnessed significant progress in recent years, with a focus on diversification and sustainability. The country has made strides in reducing its reliance on imported fossil fuels through the promotion of renewable energy sources such as solar power and wind energy. To start this interview, could you provide a snapshot of Malta’s energy landscape and explain the main highlights in terms of the sector’s performance, policies and evolution that have taken place in the last few years?
As an island nation, Malta stands separated from many of the international energy networks, and so historically the country had to generate its energy, essentially, through local power plants. In recent years however, Malta has been increasingly moving away from polluting fossil fuels to natural gas, and this has contributed to significantly cutting down our carbon footprint. In parallel, like many others, Malta has also invested in renewable energy which has accentuated the need to connect to other European grids. Today this connection is achieved mainly through an underwater cable that runs between Malta and Sicily. This interconnection has two key benefits for us: on the one hand it enables us to import energy from the European grid when the cost is right; and on the other hand, it helps us to address the energy intermittency that we face in our electricity lines. Indeed, developing our renewables industry comes with larger fluctuations as the energy generated by renewables is more volatile. Thanks to this interconnector cable, we can, not only import energy to support of our own intermittent renewable production, but potentially also import cleaner energy produced by renewables in Sicily. In other words, it enables us to support our renewables infrastructure and grid installation while also enabling us to better control our energy supply.
As a signatory of the Paris Agreement and a regular participant to the COP events, Malta, has committed to decarbonization by 2050, and therefore we need to develop new solutions to accelerate the decarbonization of our economic activities, to diversify away from fossil fuels, including natural gas, toward greener sources of energy. With that in mind, we have started to look both at our own renewable generation but also at further interconnections with international grids linked to renewables. Indeed, as a small country, we have limited possibilities to install renewable energy sources on land, and so we have to think beyond our shores and look also at potential offshore renewable energy sources. Unfortunately, the sea floor around Malta is very deep and it is not very conducive to install renewable energy on the seabed. We, therefore, need to consider alternative floating installations. We are seriously examining developments in new floating technologies. They have developed tremendously in recent years, so there is now increased investment interest in large-scale renewable projects that float in our territorial waters.
Interconnect Malta is an essential component of Malta’s energy transition. Our aim is to reduce the country’s dependence on natural gas and ensure infrastructural backup for the increased installation of renewables in and around Malta.
Malta’s interconnector plays a vital role in ensuring a stable and reliable supply of electricity to the islands, thanks to the Malta-Sicily interconnector. Could you provide an update on ongoing and upcoming projects that Interconnect Malta is involved in to further strengthen energy infrastructure, like the second Malta-Sicily cable and the Melita TransGas pipeline?
Interconnect Malta is a government-owned company supporting the responsibilities of the Ministry for Environment, Energy and Enterprise. As a public company we engage in objective decision making driven by the long-term interests of the country and not based on possible short-term commercial considerations. Our mission is to support the country’s aspirations to transition to a carbon-neutral economy. As part of this national decarbonization strategy, we are now working on a second interconnector between Malta and Sicily which will make our connection to mainland Europe much more robust and resilient.
Secondly, we are also working on a gas pipeline to mainland Europe, the Melita TransGas project. We already have a permit to install this new natural gas pipeline, however its design has been updated to also carry hydrogen. Indeed, as the world is moving towards decarbonization, having a pipeline that is only supplying natural gas may be a short-lived decision, and so this hybrid pipeline will enable us to transport both natural gas, which is the fuel of today, and hydrogen, which is expected to fire our power plants in the future. The pipeline will connect Malta to the European gas grids, providing a much safer connection than the ship-porting connection that we have right now.
Thirdly, we are looking to invest in large-scale battery energy storage systems (BESSs) in order to alleviate the fluctuations that come with renewable energy. This will enable us to be more self-sufficient when it comes to the generation of renewable energy and more independent from the mainland continent. We have started the procedure to design and procure two BESSs, which will support the electrical infrastructure around the country, enabling it to handle the influx of energy coming from all sources, including renewables on land, and to shift day-time energy generation to meet demand during the evening when it is most needed. The BESSs will also dissipate the stress that one would experience in the electrical network and, hopefully, will be a shining example for other member states or regions as to how they can truly be self-sufficient in electrical supply with limited resources.
Fourthly, Interconnect Malta has been charged with overseeing the technical aspects and implementation of offshore floating renewable energy infrastructure. Malta is striving to generate as much renewable energy as possible, and we have been supporting government to incentivize people, industry and all entities to install renewables. However, Malta being a very small, densely populated country, it needs to look at using our offshore areas to produce clean energy. We have ample seas around us, and third parties have expressed interest in potentially collaborating with the government to design, install, finance and hand over a system that floats on our seas. Specific locations have been identified and submissions were made last September in a preliminary market consultation process.
Those are the four projects that we are working on right now. Interconnect Malta’s role has evolved greatly from what it was at first. Interconnect Malta was initially about interconnection mainly focused on the second interconnector with Sicily and with the Melita TransGas project. We are now being tasked to also support the generation of additional renewables by helping with the technical management of the installation of floating renewables and their interconnection to the main grid. We are also responsible for the implementation of two BESSs projects as described previously. Some of these projects require not only commercial and technical negotiations with other states, but also technical analysis for feasibility and permits covering technical and environmental aspects in Malta and Sicily, which may take time. We are collaborating with as many entities as possible to enable us to implement these ambitions.
The Mediterranean happens to be a good location for such conversations to be had. In May, the Minister for Energy in Malta invited all the other energy ministers of countries bordering the Mediterranean in Africa, Asia and Southern Europe to collaborate and share common purpose, ideas, technologies and solutions in order for the region to become a potential renewable energy powerhouse for Europe. For now, we are in the planning, collaboration and innovation stage, but this collage of opportunities is right in front of us. What we need to do right now is to test the many available options, and invest with the right partners, possibly considering public-private partnerships which may unlock the best potential of shortlisted solutions.
Malta has set an ambitious goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, aligning with global efforts to combat climate change. As a head of the Malta ESG Alliance—the platform for Maltese businesses to work together to achieve national environmental, societal and governance goals—can you tell me what other avenues the country is exploring to become more sustainable and reach its targets?
Our decarbonization ambitions are very clear: we want our economy to be carbon neutral by 2050. These are not just words, but real ambitions that reflect the aspirations of the country. This transition is not easy and goes well beyond just energy. It transpires into everything we do, including how we conduct business, how we invest, the way we manage our resources, the way we address at social needs, quality of life, traffic impact, the quality of our tourism, the food we generate and consume, the values of our people, visitors and customers. The Malta ESG Alliance’s 13 founding partners have taken action to reduce their respective carbon footprint with a combined reduced energy consumption equivalent to that of Marsaxlokk, a small town in the south of Malta. This is an indication of what our business and economic eco-systems should be doing: not only producing clean-energy, but also to reducing their overall energy consumption. This can only be achieved by having clear ambitions and measurable targets, and a defined set of actions supported by financial incentives and policies. What Interconnect Malta and the Ministry for Environment, Energy and Enterprise are doing is aligned with these ambitions and we need to maximize collaboration in this area.
The transition to a net-zero carbon economy in Malta is not going to happen just by supplying and using clean energy, it also involves using fewer resources, generating the least waste and extending the lifetime of every product that we consume to the longest time possible. This aspiration is not only to do with energy, but is expected to improve our quality of life, sustainability in our agriculture, tourism, transport, buildings, infrastructure and more. We need to have the robust social foundation that goes with it and ensure that we have proper governance structures to keep it all together. Young people are very clear about what they want and the values they hold. The expectations and consumption patterns of up-and-coming generations will shape a regenerative and distributive fair economy. They are clear about the kind of country they want us to hand over to them and are holding us to account. We need to ensure that these values transcend through our decision-making processes, policies, the investments we make, the type of work ethic we champion, the embracing of digitalization, artificial intelligence, automation and innovation.
The energy sector in Malta has embraced modern technologies to drive efficiency, sustainability and innovations, such as smart grids, digital monitoring systems and energy management software. What are the ongoing or planned innovative projects that Interconnect Malta is involved in to promote the integration of smart technologies in Malta’s energy sector?
Any transition into the future implies that we do things differently: we have to generate resources differently, consume them differently and transform with as few hiccups as possible. That can only happen through continuous research, innovation and development. We need to work with academics and researchers who are at the forefront of resolving the problems of today and tomorrow. Interconnect Malta will embrace and support ESG metrics and will ensure that digitalization and artificial intelligence will be core to its actions. I believe that in order to reach full efficiency, our economy’s general decision-making processes will probably need to be taken over by algorithms and technology. This way we will be able to prioritize human development that benefits from creativity to come up with ideas and solutions that are more social centric.
The economy that Malta wants to develop is not one that is purely focused on economic growth driven by gross domestic product but is centered around human development and human needs. This requires all stakeholders, including Interconnect Malta, to collaborate to regenerate for a socially fair distribution network. The more we listen to future generations and include them in our decision-making processes, the better it will be for this nation.
You are a prominent figure in Malta wearing multiple hats, as you not only serve as the Chairman of Interconnect Malta, but also of the Malta Council for Economic and Social Development (MCESD), a body that advises the government. How would you summarize your goals and aspirations for the future, particularly in terms of energy, innovation and the overall socioeconomic wellbeing of Malta?
I see my role as being all about collaboration and bringing people together. When people come together, collaborate, and trust each other, then incredible things can happen. We have experienced this during the pandemic. We now need to bring together all social partners and significant national actors to envision updated economic and social ambitions for Malta that we could not have previously imagined.
An updated version of Malta’s current economic vision should include for economic growth based on the following: strong and credible environmental credentials that reflect the values we uphold; the social drive of how we take care of each other and how we make sure people are the center of our policy making; and accompanying this with incredibly resilient governance principles and actions. It is only in this way that we will be able to make use of our resources efficiently. In this manner we will be able to continue to carve out the kind of country we want and reflect the real and human aspirations of future generations. Every decision that is made and every policy that is considered at government level and societal level—including ones concerning energy—could be benchmarked and reviewed to ensure we achieve the aspirations of a thriving nation. This clarity attracts qualitative foreign direct investment and holds high the reputation of our country. Our country’s aims are to reach these goals faster than others, since our small size enables us to be nimble in decision making and delivery, and hence more efficient and effective in regeneration, reconfirming Malta to be the country of choice to live in, work in or collaborate in.
What would be your final message to the readers of Newsweek?
Making this planet a truly livable, enjoyable and peaceful one will not be the result of the actions or decisions of one person, one country or even one continent. This has to be a planetary ambition. We need politicians to come together and, although every person, entity, country and continent will have their own specific interests, ultimately the only solution to most of today’s challenges lies in collaboration. Yes, there will be outliers, there will be leaders and there will be followers, but what I would like for the planet is a lot more leaders than followers or outliers. These leaders need to be inspirational, clear and focused enough to produce a compelling image of how we could all be happier people that live in a safer environment that is expected by future generations.
This image needs to be created not through words but through tangible and measurable aspirations and actions, and by putting money where our mouths are. We need to allow finance to flow in our prioritized routes, to make decisions and act in a manner that reflects what we say, and to collaborate with everybody of good will. This transition needs to be supported by everybody. These are exciting times. In this digital age, these transformations will be supported by innovation, heightened human skills and talent, and will enable fairness, equity and an improved quality of life in harmony with our inner core and our environment.
The transition that the world will go through in the next 20 years is significant and it is not easy to fathom, envision or understand. People will be challenged to change words into the right actions fast enough on many levels: at an individual level, as a parent, as a leader, as a politician, as a country and as a planet. This will require an immense amount of tangible, real, honest and ethical collaboration. I am committed to this.