Malta’s Smart Grid Solution

The world’s first multiutility grid should save water and money

9 min read
Valletta, the capital of Malta
Photo: Hans Peter Merten/Getty Images

Photo: Hans Peter Merten/Getty Images
Valletta, the capital of Malta.

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“In the Mediterranean, nobody wants to pay for anything!” my cab driver bellows as he drops us off at the headquarters of a Maltese utility. He’s railing against electricity theft. It’s a problem that many people here would prefer not to discuss. Our cabbie isn’t one of them. He doesn’t know it, but with me in the car is Roberto Aguilera Gonzale, IBM Global Services’ program manager for a project to install technology that should put an end to the theft—and do much more.

Here in this tiny nation of 400 000, a seven-island archipelago strung between Italy and Tunisia, IBM is building the world’s first smart grid that will govern both electricity and water. For the electricity utility, Enemalta Corp., in Marsa, the €70 million (about US $88 million) grid will make detecting theft easy, distribution fair, and administration efficient. It will also make environmental measures easier to promote, through pricing options that reward conservation and solar energy; solar panels are a viable alternative on these sunstruck islands. Water Services Corp., in Luqa, will use the smart grid to shave kilowatt-hours off its energy bill by optimizing its control systems. And both the electric and water utilities will monitor every watt and liter flowing onto their respective grids and compare those measurements to the readouts of every meter in the system. That way, losses through theft, leakage, and defective meters can be pinpointed quickly.

Illustration:  Andrew Zbihlyj
Click on image for the full graphic view.

But while the grid will help both utilities keep a lid on costs, energy and water prices are ultimately tied to Malta’s total dependence on oil, its shortage of freshwater, and the fact that as a member of the European Union, it must implement a sustainable water policy this year. Part of that policy is to force water conservation on consumers through price increases. So the government is setting the price of electricity. That in turn determines the price of water, because Water Services uses electricity to extract groundwater and to desalinate seawater, the parched islands’ two main sources.

When utility rates rise, of course, everybody blames the government. The inevitable pointing fingers curled into raised fists at the end of February as thousands of trade unionists and ordinary Maltese jammed the streets of the capital, Valletta, to protest hikes in their utility bills. On 1 March, a motion in the Maltese House of Representatives to repeal the new tariffs went down to defeat by a single vote.

Malta’s political and geographical circumstances make it a uniquely challenging place to institute new water and energy policies. Unlike Singapore or China, where word from the top decides all matters, the Maltese have a vibrant democracy, one where issues are debated in public and decided on election day, often by razor-thin margins. Unlike the United States or Australia, every decision taken by the national government is local. Each citizen bears the consequences not just of some faceless bureaucrat’s whims but also the actions of his or her neighbors. With the country’s energy supply at the mercy of world oil markets and its groundwater running out, Malta is approaching the point where the people must choose between conserving water and electricity or paying ever higher prices to desalinate their water and power their homes.

That’s where the smart grid will help. With the vast amounts of data it generates, government officials, the utilities, and citizens will be able to make more informed decisions. “You will have thousands of times more information than you have now,” says Paul Micallef, who oversees the introduction of the meter management system for IBM Global Services. “Unless you’re in the position of the utilities, you can’t even fathom the change that’s going to happen.”

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli
Protesters angry about rising utility rates fill the streets of Malta’s capital, Valletta, in February.

In Malta, water and electricity are inextricably bound—and not just in the minds of protesters and politicians. Roughly one-third of Malta’s water comes from three aging plants that squeeze the salt out of seawater through reverse osmosis (RO). Another third is pumped out of Malta’s shrinking aquifers by approximately 8600 private borehole owners who extract water free of charge. About a quarter is pumped out of Water Services’ own boreholes. The rest comes either from small RO plants run by a few large hotels or from private cisterns that store the scant 550 millimeters of annual rainfall. The cisterns were mandated for all homes by the Renaissance rulers of the islands, the Knights of St. John of Malta, in the 16th century and came in handy during siege or drought.

Electricity accounts for 75 percent of the cost of the water produced by Water Services’ RO plants. So when Enemalta raised electricity rates for large commercial customers by 60 percent, it effectively bumped up domestic and commercial rates for water, too, by as much as 25 percent.

Over the years, Water Services has installed a series of technologies to get ever more water from each watt consumed in its RO plants. As a result, the energy used to desalinate 1 million liters of water has dropped from 5 kilowatt-hours 25 years ago to 2.8 kWh today.

The newest plant, commissioned in 1992 at Pembroke, about a kilometer from the upscale hotel district of St. Julian’s, has a capacity of 54 megaliters of water per day. As we tour the facility, Pembroke’s operations manager, Warren Vella, tells me that in the relatively rainy winter season, the plant operates at less than half that and at 37 ML per day in the summer.

The plant sits on the beach next to a Maltese army shooting range. Seawater is pumped into a reservoir under the plant from boreholes that have been drilled along the seashore. The sediment in the boreholes filters out dead fish, seaweed, and garbage; sand, pebbles, and seashell fragments settle in the reservoir.

The seawater is then shoved at 7 megapascals—enough pressure to shoot a stream of water 700 meters in the air—through a series of pipes stuffed with hollow-fiber or spiral-bound membranes. About 40 percent of the seawater is converted into potable water this way. The remaining brine flows along one side of the plant to drive a Pelton wheel, a turbine that turns a 6-kilovolt motor, which in turn forces fresh seawater through the membranes. Brine flowing on the opposite side of the plant funnels into a mechanical pressure exchanger where it spins a ceramic rotor, which imparts that pressure to new seawater entering the exchanger from the other side. Finally, the brine leaves the system and returns to the sea.

At each stage in the conversion of saltwater to fresh you can hope to save energy only if you can control pressure and flow rates precisely. That’s the point of linking the smart grid to the utility’s existing supervisory control and data-acquisition system. With historical and real-time data at their fingertips, Vella and his colleagues expect to take advantage of such conditions as lower seawater salinity, when less pressure is needed to push the water through the membranes.

Until recently, most of Water Services’ engineering efforts have been aimed at saving energy and stopping leaks. Now the utility is turning its attention to detecting and plugging a different kind of leak: commercial losses that stem from meters that aren’t sensitive enough to measure very low water flow.

Photos: Joshua Romero
At the Pembroke RO plant, water sucked from the sea is blasted through thousands of meters of filter-filled pipes.

Over the next three years IBM will outfit the old water meters with new data-collection modules. The modules convert the analog pulses to digital signals, which are then radioed to devices called concentrators that collect data from meters located in a particular zone and transmit that data in batches to Water Services. By comparing the amount of water being read by individual meters with the amount of water flowing into each zone, the utility will discover discrepancies that will help them track down slow leaks.

“It’s a powerful tool to basically drill down and go to the key problem areas,” says Stephen Galea St. John, Water Services’ chief officer of operations. “It’s a question of low-lying fruit.”

It’ll take a few years to pluck that fruit. The five-year project began in 2009 and involves more than 100 IBM personnel working alongside about twice as many employees from the utilities.

Dozens of programmers, engineers, and project managers click away on ThinkPads in a situation room at Water Services’ headquarters. Here they’re knitting together the business systems that will ingest, analyze, and act upon the hundreds of thousands of data points that the water and electric meters will generate each day. In some instances, programmers are building things from scratch, such as an advanced meter management system, which both Water Services and Enemalta will use. IBM is also replacing the billing system the two utilities have long shared with a new one from the German firm SAP. Actual consumption and billing data will be available to customers via a new Web portal that accepts online payments and helps customers understand their own consumption patterns.

Just as Water Services’ newly outfitted meters will help minimize commercial losses, the electric smart meters made by Enel, of Italy, are the first line of defense against electricity theft. Four years ago government officials estimated that Enemalta was losing up to 14 percent of its electricity to theft. More recent estimates show total commercial losses of 8 percent, with theft being a major factor.

As Anthony Gauci, project manager for automated metering at Enemalta, explains over the whine of a drill during an installation, electricity thieves are an enterprising lot, and they love the old electromechanical meters. Popular tampering methods include drilling a hole in the meter cover and inserting an object to stop the unit-counting disk from rotating; turning the meter at an angle so that the disk touches the magnet inside the meter and stops rotating; opening the link between the voltage and current coils so the meter registers no consumption; and splicing in a wire to bypass the meter completely and connect the power directly to the main switch of the thief’s home or business.

With curious residents looking on, Enemalta technician Joseph Giuliano takes out the building’s 10-year-old analog meters and replaces them with the smart meters. He also installs a plate that hides all the cables connecting to the meters, a simple but effective measure to thwart would-be splice-and-bypass thieves.

Giuliano works with a handheld device that plugs into the meter and programs it with customer contract information. Once installed and locked with bar-coded seals, the meters communicate over power lines at 2.5 kilobits per second with a data concentrator inside the local substation. The substation concentrator in turn sends data wirelessly to Enemalta’s main offices.

Photos: Joshua Romero
Joseph Giuliano, an Enemalta technician, installs a plate that hides the wires connecting to new smart meters [top]. Next, he programs the meters with customer information [bottom left].  As a final step against tampering, he seals each meter with a bar-coded plastic tag [bottom right].

As of February, technicians had installed more than 11 000 smart meters in a handful of test zones. The plan is for 80 000 smart meters to be installed each year for the next three years. By the beginning of 2013, all of Malta’s electricity and water meters should be hooked up to the utilities’ respective computer networks.

The meters store consumption, profile, and event data and are periodically polled by the central system. By measuring how much electricity is being put on the grid and comparing that with the electricity the smart meters are registering, Enemalta can spot discrepancies and analyze them with IBM’s Cognos software to identify the nature of the losses. System administrators can also query the meters and control the amount of power available to a customer. That’s a huge change from today, when meter readings (done at most twice a year), service adjustments, and power cuts to nonpayers must be performed in person.

Even if Enemalta wrings every last cent from its grid, the potential for much higher electricity and water prices looms. Enemalta has no plans to replace its oil-fired power plants, so it will be subject to the vagaries of the petroleum market for the foreseeable future. To further complicate matters, studies show that saltwater is infiltrating Malta’s aquifers, which supply about 60 percent of the country’s freshwater. That will inevitably lead to a shift toward more seawater desalination and more energy consumption.

Gordon Knox, who spent 28 years as a geologist with Shell Oil Co. and now studies Malta’s aquifers, believes the country is headed for a reckoning. Malta has a porous rock system, Knox tells me, with nooks and crannies into which either rainwater or seawater can infiltrate. In the aquifers, freshwater floats on top of the denser seawater. This freshwater layer, known as a lens, is dynamic: When water is pumped out of an aquifer, the freshwater lens becomes thinner, and seawater takes its place beneath. Studies by the Malta Resources Authority and the Malta Environment and Planning Authority predict that in just five years, the groundwater may no longer be usable. Knox’s own estimates, which are based on publicly available data, place the date for total groundwater salinization as far out as 2025.

Knox is convinced that if business as usual continues, Malta will be forced to produce all of its water with reverse osmosis. While Water Services’ existing RO plants can meet all of Malta’s current needs, costs would skyrocket. He figures the desalinated water costs residents about five times as much as groundwater. So shifting entirely to desalinated water—all other factors being equal—would triple consumers’ water bills. And if oil prices rise, water prices would rise even more.

Water Services’ St. John agrees that groundwater salinization is inevitable if nothing is done to curb usage. So he is preparing for the worst. His team is working with the Malta Resource Authority to research ways to replenish the aquifers. One idea is to run treated wastewater through RO and use additional disinfection measures before pumping it back into the ground.

Meanwhile, the water price increases are encouraging individual Maltese to take matters into their own hands. “Now that the water price has run up, we can see already a lot of actions,” says Joseph Cilia, a professor in the power and control engineering department at the University of Malta. Cilia’s own home is a showcase of the Maltese home of the future. He recently installed photovoltaic panels with help from government subsidies. He also placed the water tanks of his toilets 3 meters above the bowls and set them up to flush automatically, thereby cutting his water bill by 40 percent.

“It’s often human nature that when faced with a real crunch, they’re then energized to do something about it,” Knox says. If that’s true, maybe the Maltese can conserve their way to a sustainable future. The alternative, to paraphrase that cab driver, is one nobody wants to pay for.

This article originally appeared in print as “Malta Takes Control.”

To Probe Further

Check out the rest of the special report: Water vs Energy.

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