Thursday 27 February 2020

Giving (electric) power to the people

This column first appeared in Malta Today

“Power to the people” was the rallying cry of the 1960s, made famous by the anti-establishment hippy movement.

In 2020, this phrase is starting to take on a more literal meaning as we are being warned that the frustrating power outages we experienced in December might continue in the first few months of this new year. And if there is we thing we all need and rightly demand is (literally) power in our homes, offices and places of relaxation. 

Despite the fact that this sector has been mired in one scandal after another, we are still not at a place where the country is guaranteed the reassurance of an uninterrupted electricity supply. You could be at the hairdresser’s getting your hair done for an important event and poof!  Power cut.  Suffice to say that two days before Christmas when the whole country suffered a blackout, the screams of horrified anguish from hair and beauty salons could practically be heard across the country.  On a more serious note, these small businesses lost customers and money that day as did people whose jobs demand that they are constantly online and who could not get any work done.  Business owners were asking where they could rent generators as they saw their revenue slipping away. This is apart from those whose equipment and appliances were damaged because of power surges.   

It is a tired but true cliche that you don’t realise how much you depend on electricity until it’s gone: no phone, WIFI, laptop, computer, TV, water pump pressure, a hot shower, a much-needed cup of coffee…you name it. Without power we are, well, powerless.  It also brings home yet again our sheer dependence on our electronic gadgets. Watching in mute helplessness as the batteries on our mobile and computer are drained can create a new form of anxiety because we feel disconnected, isolated. How will we know what is going on?  If a blackout extends past dusk the anxiety goes up a notch –  no lights, a home plunged in darkness, there’s nothing to do! And then we suddenly remember in panic that we have a fridge full of food which has been stockpiled for the Christmas season. Just when people were seriously starting to freak out, power started being gradually returned in a staggered way, while FB looked like the aftermath of an apocalypse: “Fgura OK”, “nothing yet In Sliema”, “lights back on in Mosta”..and so on.  Those who had still managed to retain a sense of humour were marking themselves #Safe from #Blackout.

The official explanation for the power cut on 23 December was met with incredulous remarks of disbelief: a ship’s anchor had damaged the interconnector? How is that even possible?  The Times posed further questions to Enemalta which replied that: “The submarine cable lies on a sandy seabed, which cannot be trenched, rather, the cable was laid using a jetting process technology whereby the sandy seabed is spread reaching a depth of approximately 1.5 metres, the submarine cable is laid, and then covered by sand.”  We were also told that two of the three interoconnector cables were severed and extensive damage caused to two fibre optic cables. 

Unfortunately, this Government’s credibility has been shot to pieces (for which it only has itself to blame), so many people do not believe any official statements any more.  The power cut on 29 November, for example, at the height of the political crisis was also attributed to a “fault at the Ragusa substation which caused the interconnector to automatically shut down by a safety system designed to safeguard equipment. Simultaneously, all the generation plants at the Delimara Power Station tripped due to the severe voltage dip caused by the Ragusa fault.”  The loud guffaws resonated around the island.    

In fact, a nationwide power cut could not have happened at a worst time for this beleaguered administration.  It truly was the icing on the cake after all that has happened. It was one of those situations which come along when, after a series of mishaps, you find yourself thinking –  well, what ELSE can go wrong?  And, right on cue, something else does.  That it involved our electricity supply, which has been at the centre of so many corruption allegations,  just made it that much worse. 

As far as we know (because there might be hidden scandals which we were never aware of) the shadiness started with the oil scandal exposed in the run up to the 2013 elections which was the final nail in the coffin of a dying PN administration. But despite riding on this wave of popular discontent, Konrad Mizzi’s solution of promising us a new power station which runs on gas, led to the equally dubious Electrogas deal.  The deal took a twisted, even more macabre turn after Yorgen Fenech, one of the Electrogas shareholders, was found not only to be the owner of the notorious company 17 Black (linked to the offshore Panama companies owned by Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi), but is now accused of being the mastermind behind Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. 

Now depending on whom you believe, Electrogas was either a white elephant used as a vehicle to make rich men even richer, possibly even involving alleged kickbacks and money laundering, or else it was a much-needed secondary source of electricity in order for the country not to depend on just one source, namely the interconnector. 

In a press conference, Enemalta CEO Jason Vella gave this explanation: “without the interconnector, Enemalta was relying exclusively on power generation sources at Delimara, which had the capacity to satisfy peak demand.  These include the new Electrogas power station (D4) and the BWSC plant (D3), both of which run on gas. However, the company is also relying on the diesel-operated turbines known as D2A and D2B, which can produce a combined 180MW. The oldest of these turbines was commissioned in 1994….the problems occurred because of a failure to these old turbines. In another instant, one of the engines of the Electrogas plant experienced a fault.”  He added, however, that as factories return to work this month, and in the absence of the interconnector, the increased demand for electricity might mean more outages.

For the average consumer, however, all this might as well be Greek. All we want is to have power when we flick on a switch.  More importantly, on hearing about the thousands all this is costing Enemalta, they better not try to make us pay for it by passing it on to us in our bills. 

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