On the Mediterranean island of Malta, with a population of about 400,000 people on a land mass of just over 300 square kilometers, power, water and the economy are intricately linked. The country depends on electrically powered desalination plants for over half of its water supply. In fact, about 75 percent of the cost of water from these plants on Malta is directly related to energy production. Meanwhile, rising sea levels threaten Malta’s underground freshwater source.
Additionally, in line with the Lisbon strategy and the other European countries, the government of Malta has set an objective of transforming the island into a competitive knowledge economy to encourage investment by foreign companies. Meeting all of these goals in a relatively short period of time presents a complex, interconnected series of challenges that require immediate attention to ensure the country has a sustainable and prosperous future.
In light of this need, the Maltese National Utilities for Electricity and Water – Enemalta Corp. (EMC) and Water Services Corp. (WSC) – reached a partnership agreement with IBM to undertake a complete transformation of its distribution networks to improve operational efficiency and customer service levels. IBM will replace all 250,000 electricity meters with new devices, and connect these and the existing water meters to advanced information technology applications. This will enable remote reading, management and monitoring throughout the entire distribution network.
This solution will be integrated with new back-office applications for finance, billing and cash processes, as well as an advanced analytics tool to transform sensor data into valuable information supporting business decisions and improving customer service levels. It will also include a portal to enable closer interaction with – and more engagement by – the end consumers.
Why are the utility companies in Malta making such a significant investment to reshape their operations? To explore this question, it helps to start with a broader look at smart grid projects to see how they create benefits – not just for the companies making the investment, but for the local community as well.
Smart Grid Benefits
A case is often made that basic operational benefits of a smart grid implementation can be achieved largely through an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) implementation, which yields real-time readings for use in billing cycles, reduced operational cost in the low voltage network and more control over theft and fraud. In this view, the utility’s operational model is further transformed to improve customer relationship management through the introduction of flexible tariffs, remote customer connection/disconnection, power curtailment options and early outage identification through low voltage grid monitoring.
But AMI extended to a broader smart grid implementation has the potential to achieve even greater strategic benefits. One can see this by simply considering the variety of questions about the impact of the carbon footprint of human activity on the climate and other environmental factors. What is a realistic tradeoff between energy consumption, energy efficiency and economic and political dependencies on the local, national and international levels? Which energy sources will be most effective with such tradeoffs? To what extent can smaller, renewable resources replace today’s large, fossil-based power sources? Where this is possible, how can hundreds or thousands of dispersed, independently operated generators be effectively monitored?
Ultimately, distribution networks need to be smart enough to distinguish among today’s large-scale utility generators; customers producing solar energy for their own needs who are virtually disconnected from the grid; those using a wind power generator and injecting the surplus back into the grid; and end-use customers requiring marginal or full supply. An even more dispersed model for distributed generation will emerge once electric vehicles circulate in towns, placing complex new demands on the grid while offering the benefit of new storage capabilities to the network.
Together, water and power distributors, transmission operators, generators, market regulators and final customers will interact in a much more complex, interconnected and interdependent world. This is especially true in a densely populated, modern island ecosystem, where the interplay of electricity, water, gas, communications and other services is magnified.
These points of intersection take numerous shapes. For example, on a national scale, water and sewer services can consume a large portion of the available energy supply. Water service, which is essential to customer quality of life, also presents distribution issues that are similar in many ways to those embedded in the electric grid. At a more local scale, co-generation and micro-CHP generation plants make the interdependency of electricity and gas more visible. Furthermore, utilities’ experience at providing centrally managed services that afford comfort and convenience makes the provision of additional services – communication, security, and more – imaginable. But how to make these interconnections effective contributors to quality of life raises real economic questions. Is it sensible to make an overarching investment in multiple services? How can this drive increased operational efficiency and bring new benefits to customers? Can a clear return on investment be demonstrated to investors and bill payers?
Malta is an example of an island that operates a vertically integrated and isolated electricity system. Malta has no connections with the European electricity grid and no gas pipelines to supply its generators. In the current configuration of the energy infrastructure, all of its demand must be fulfilled by the two existing power plants, which generate power using entirely imported fossil fuel. Because of these limitations on supply, and dependencies on non-native resources, electricity distribution must be extremely efficient, limiting any loss of energy as much as possible. Both technical and commercial losses must be kept fully under control, and theft must be effectively eliminated from the system to avoid unfair social accounting and to ensure proper service levels to all customers.
Estimates of current economic losses in Malta are in the millions of Euros for just the non-technical losses. At these levels, and with limited generation capacity, quality of service and ability to satisfy demand at all times is threatened. Straining the system even further is the reality that Malta, without significant natural water sources, must rely on a seawater purification process to supply water to its citizens. This desalinization process absorbs roughly one-third of the annual power consumption on the island.
But the production process is not the only source of interdependency of electricity and water as the distribution principles of each have strong ties. In most locations in the world, electricity and water distribution have opposing characteristics that allow them to enjoy some symbiotic benefits. Electricity cannot be effectively stored, so generation needs to match and synchronize in time with demand. Water service generally has the opposite characteristic: in fact, it can be stored so easily that it is frequently stored as pre-generation capacity in hydro generation.
But on an island like Malta, this relationship is turned on its head. There is no natural water to store, and once produced, purified water should be consumed rather quickly. If it is produced in excess, then reservoir evaporation and pipeline losses can affect the desalinization effort and the final efficiency of the process. So in Malta, unlike much of the rest of the world, water providers tend to view customer demand in a similar way as electricity providers, and the demand profiles are unable to support each other as they can elsewhere.
These are qualitative observations. But if electricity and water networks can be monitored, and real-time data supplied, providers can begin to assess important questions regarding operational and financial optimization of the system, which will, among other benefits, improve reliability and service quality and keep costs low.
An additional issue the government of Malta faces is its effort to ensure that the population has a sufficient and diverse educational and technical experience base. When a company is attracted to invest in Malta, it benefits from finding local natives with appropriate skills to employ; costs increase if too many foreign nationals must be brought in to operate the company. Therefore, pervasive education on information and communication technology-related topics is a priority for the government, aimed at young students, as well as adult citizens.
Therein lies a further – but no less important – benefit of bringing a smart grid to Malta. Energy efficiency campaigns supported by smart meters will not only help its citizens control consumption behavior and make more efficient and effective electricity and water operations a reality, but they will prove to be a project that helps raise the island’s technology culture in a new dimension. Meter installers will deal with palmtop and other advanced IT applications, learning to connect the devices not only to the physical electrical infrastructure, but also to the embedded information infrastructure. From smart home components to value-added services, commercial and industrial players will look to new opportunities that leverage the smart grid infrastructure in Malta as well, adding highly skilled jobs and new businesses to the Maltese economy.
Benefits will expand down to the elementary education levels as well. For example, it will be possible for schools to visit utility demonstration centers where the domestic meter can be presented as an educational tool. This potential includes making energy efficiency a door to educational programs on responsible citizenship, science, mathematics, environmental sustainability and many other key learning areas. Families will find new incentive to become familiar with the Internet as they connect to the utility’s website to control their energy bill and investigate enhanced tariffs for more cost-effective use of basic services.
Malta is famed for its Megalithic Temples – the oldest free-standing buildings in Europe, older than the Pyramids of Egypt . But with its smart grid project, it stands to be the home of one of the newest and most advanced infrastructure projects as well. The result of the Maltese smart grid effort will be an end-to-end electricity and water transmission and distribution system. It will not only enable more efficient consumption of energy and water, but will completely transform the relationship of Maltese consumers with the utilities, while enhancing their education and employment prospects. These benefits go well beyond the traditional calculation of benefits of, for example, a simple AMI-focused project, and demonstrate that a smart grid project in an island environment can go well beyond simply improving utility operations. It can transform the entire community in ways that will improve the quality of life in Malta for generations to come.
- 1 The Bradshaw Foundation, 2009