It’s complicated

▪️ It’s complicated ▪️ Permanent emergency? ▪️ Uglification

My children keep telling me that, as a Baby Boomer, I have difficulty understanding Millenials or Generation Z, let alone Generation Alpha.  That may well be the case, but it’s not going to hold me back from telling any of them that “the situation is complicated”. 

What I am referring to is the tendency of successive generations to ask for simple answers to very complicated questions: tell me in half a dozen words why the world is looking down the abyss, or why there is poverty, or why there is inflation in food prices.  If I exceed the magical six words, I am likely to be told that they don’t have time to listen anymore or that they are bored because my answer is too long. Imagine if they had to read 1,200 words or 15,000 in answer to any of their questions.

My granddaughters become bored very quickly.  Their attention span is measured in seconds.  How can I tell them that the Middle East is at the edge of a cliff in just six words?  Might as well as say one    ̶   Boom.  That they will understand, though they still wouldn’t now the reasons why.

It seems the majority of people have difficulty listening to, let alone understanding, the roots and branches of a social ill, the motivations of public (and private) actors, and a whole lot else.  It could well be that that’s because I do not present myself as an ambassador of certainty or a font of unassailable verities but as an emissary of doubt.

I am sure that this is the problem at the root of our education system.  We have not been telling our students how to ask intelligent questions, rather than expect final answers. We are not teaching them how much they have to learn — and how much they will always have to learn.  Instead, we teach them how to obtain the most marks at the least expense of effort. 

Another thing that I am noticing about Gen Z and Gen Alpha:  too many of them are obsessed with how they’ve been wronged and their insistence on wallowing in ire. We live in an era defined and overwhelmed by grievance and anger, reflecting a pessimism that previous generations didn’t feel. The ascent of identity politics and the influence of social media, it turns out, have been better at inflaming us than uniting us. They promote a self-obsession at odds with community, civility, and compromise. It’s a problem of humility.

At least 90 percent of our politicians are unhumble. They have decided that they hold the truth, no matter all the evidence to the contrary. They cannot accept that their preference for one policy over another could possibly be wrong.  They have elevated how they view the country and what they want over common sense, governance, institutional stability, law, order.

I think that real progress can only come from people with character and who know how a society can hold itself together.  It can only come if leaders   ̶   in society at large as much as in politics   ̶   are endowed with concern for the common good, with respect for the institutions and procedures that protect that, and who ideally embody those traits or at least promote them.

The following verses from Philippians 2:3 come to mind: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” they say. “Rather, in humility value others above yourself.” That’s great practical advice for anyone in politics   ̶   Government and Opposition.

Permanent emergency?

The Opposition has been having a field day criticising the Government’s plans to commission a leased emergency power plant at an estimated cost of €46 million over 27 months.  First announced during the last budget speech, the plant is to have the capacity to supply an additional 60 megawatts of power should one of the country’s principal electricity plants suffer damage during peak demand. 

In July 2023, Malta had endured 10 days of power cuts amid record heatwaves.  EneMalta had attributed those power cuts to overheating of buried cables, though this had been disputed by a number of experts.  Enemalta, which is currently overhauling Malta’s electricity distribution network, insists that it has enough electricity to supply the country even during summer peak periods.  But it is clear that, even if this is the case, electricity provision is working close to the limit.

Had this not been the case, it seems to me that the projected cost of the emergency plant would not have almost quadrupled.  Somebody slipped up, for sure.  The primary blame should be carried by EneMalta, since its power generation concession carries with it an obligation to upgrade its capabilities in the light of anticipated demand.  However, the policy-makers   ̶   including the Malta Resources Authority   ̶  must also shoulder the blame.

The need for a buffer was a no-brainer.  Malta’s population has increased by 22% in the past decade, higher temperatures than the norm prevailed for nine months of the year in 2023 (with the Meteorological Office issuing multiple weather warnings for extreme heat as temperatures recordings consistently hovered around the 40°C mark), the use of airconditioning has become a normal comfort, and the economy continues to grow.  This all translates into a higher demand.

When Enemalta’s chairman, Ryan Fava, appealed to the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) to waive the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the “urgently” needed power plant, he said that energy demand had increased by 14% last July compared to previous summers.  He anticipated that demand in summer of 2024 would rise even higher.  But this scenario did not suddenly appear in 2023   ̶   it could be seen evolving since 2013. 

One other element that I think is relevant is that energy consumption per capita or per dwelling in Malta are abnormally low compared to other countries.  For example, consumption per dwelling is half that of Cyprus and the lowest in the EU, while consumption per capita is around 25% lower and the second-lowest in the EU.  So, another no-brainer is that there was only one way it would go.  It therefore seems that the criticism of EneMalta and the authorities is justified. 

The Labour Government took the wise decision in 2013 to convert electricity production to gas and to decommission heavily-polluting plants.  It also committed to a second interconnector and is exploring the feasibility of a gas pipeline, apart from a push to put renewables on the map.  The strategy to diversify our production and not rely on any single source of energy makes sense.

The PN’s criticism about the emergency power plant is not, however, fully justified.  Commissioning large energy projects   ̶   be they local plants or pipelines to Sicily   ̶  takes years and is technically challenging.  So, even had the government acted earlier, that does not mean that the need for an emergency power plant would have been avoided.  In fact, I believe the Energy Ministry’s statement that the plant is temporary is a strategic mistake, opening it to further criticism should it result that we will need it beyond two years.

The emergency plant will be located at Delimara, where Malta’s existing power plants are. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli/Times of Malta

One aspect that worries me is that this emergency plant is going to be quite costly.  I am not an expert but I calculate that, based on public information, the plant could generate a maximum of 67,500 megawatts of power over 27 months.  Dividing the price tag of €46m by that quantity of energy yields a cost of €681 per megawatt-hour (MWh).  Information on energy production costs in Malta are hard to come by, but it was reported that in 2020 the average price of production was €148/MWh from the interconnector and €85.81/MWh from the gas plant.   Based on a reported increase of 158% in interconnector prices and a 20% rise in gas prices since 2020, the estimated 2023 prices of €382 for the interconnector and €103 for the gas plant look dirth cheap compared to the emergency plant pricing.

As to criticism of the use of diesel for the emergency plant, all the experts agree that diesel is much preferable to heavy fuel oil.  In fact, in 2010 environmental NGOs had appealed to the PN government to use diesel in the extension of the Delimara power plant, rather than the more polluting heavy fuel oil.  Dr Gonzi’s government had ignored them, so the Opposition’s energy spokesman’s criticism seems rather hollow.

Uglification

Architect Patrick Calleja is no longer demotivated and disillusioned.  He turned his back on the “toxicity and frustration” of his work as an architect dealing with the Planning Authority and has now taken on the full-time role of heading Din l-Art Ħelwa.  According to the Times of Malta, he feels liberated, positive, and energised to focus on safeguarding Malta’s historic, artistic, and natural heritage.

In his interview with the Times of Malta, Calleja describes how he had to contend with situations where PA case officers recommended refusal of permits on several grounds, only to see the developer get approval anyway and the same case officers then switching sides to argue in favour of approval.

As far as Calleja is concerned, the PA is “a political football”   ̶   much like MEPA was before it, I would add.  Calleja blames it for “the horrendous uglification of Malta”.  Since when has architecture in Malta contributed to the beauty of the built environment?  With some exceptions, we probably need to go back four centuries or so.   Of course, culture does not help   ̶  most people in Malta think that new buildings in Malta should be in the Baroque style, for heaven’s sake.

Calleja singled out Valletta as an example of the “cultural downward spiral” that the country is facing, with the capital’s public spaces having been usurped and devalued.  “How can they allow louder music to play later than anywhere else on the island in a UNESCO World Heritage Site?”  That is rather a rhetorical question   ̶   we all know that, when business interests are involved, the authorities will be accommodating.  Playing loud music does wonders for tourism.  In fact, this is why one hardly sees any tourists in Florence, Venice, or Gimignano!

Din l-Art Ħelwa is doing an invaluable job in vetting development applications, using a team of professionals and volunteers to identify cases where policies are being breached, file objections, prepare submissions, and appeal permits.  This all costs money and time. It has had some victories in getting  decisions overturned and permits revoked.

The NGO has been very prominent in fighting the controversial plan to remove trees from the picturesque road to Marsalforn. He doesn’t mince any words in calling the project “criminal”, useless, and a waste of money.  “What on earth is this for? There is never any traffic on this road, so why? To get there a few seconds earlier?  Or to give out some contract just for the sake of using up the money when it could be spent on something else.”

▪️ It’s complicated ▪️ Permanent emergency? ▪️ Uglification
Architect Patrick Calleja

Unfortunately, Calleja noted, not many Gozitans attended the protest, with more foreigners leading the charge.  No surprises there.  Gozitans   ̶  even more than Maltese   ̶  depend on government employment and other largesse, so are loath to be included in the little books that mark them as blue or red.  Yet, the NGO and other environmentalists seem to have made the Gozo Ministry change tack somewhat.

The battle to save our heritage and to ensure that current and future generations can live in a honeyed land is indeed a constant and relentless battle.  Din l-Art Ħelwa might be puny, but it is punching above its weight.

Main photo: Kampus Production

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