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Growth & Jobs | Jamaica’s energy future firmly rooted in its past

Published:Tuesday | November 20, 2018 | 12:00 AMChristopher Serju/Gleaner Writer

Private capital and ownership as well as renewable energy sources, the two pillars on which electricity generation was established in Jamaica more than 120 years ago, will in all likelihood be the platforms for supplying the country's future energy needs. That is the enlightened view of Managing Director of JN Fund Managers Allan Lewis.

"Jamaica has come full circle in one respect: The majority of our electrical generating capacity is in private hands. Although we are still some way from having the majority of our energy from renewable sources, we are definitely leading the way in the English-speaking Caribbean," he disclosed during the recent forum on 'Future of Caribbean Renewable Energy' at the Spanish Court Hotel, New Kingston.

"Even though, in 1892, coal was the fuel for the first steam generator on the island, located at Gold Street ... Jamaica soon had many hydro-electric plants after the first one was constructed on the Rio Cobre at Bog Walk in 1897. Some estimates indicate that by the early 1900s, the number one source of electricity in Jamaica was hydro," Lewis disclosed.

However, the limited potential of the island's hydro resources as reliable sources for electricity generation was exposed in the wake of the 1907 earthquake, which destroyed most of the capital city. Thereafter, coal, oil and other hydro-carbons became the energy sources of choice, the manager director explained.

He pointed out that until fairly recently electricity generation was entirely the domain of the private sector with at least four companies - Country Electric Lighting, Northern Electric Lighting, St James Utility and the Jamaica Public Service (JPS) - supplying the country's energy needs at the end of World War ll.

However, there was a downside to this private-sector dominance, Lewis reminded his audience.

"Of course, during the period of private ownership, electricity was supplied to perhaps one-third of all homes in the island, because private capital would only consider building transmission lines and other infrastructure to the communities that were close enough to the generating facility to make it financially feasible."

By 1970, when the Government of Jamaica acquired the JPS, it had bought out all the other electricity-generating companies and the irony of the situation then was not lost on the JN Fund Managers executive.

He explained: "Consequently, electricity generation in Jamaica that had been established on two principles - private capital and ownership, and using mostly renewable sources of energy - had now become entirely State-controlled and almost entirely relied on hydrocarbon and heavy fuel oil, to be more precise, as the sources of energy."

Now, with the global emphasis on cleaner, cheaper and more sustainable energy, renewables are once again emerging as the sources of choice, with Jamaica considered a regional leader. An estimated 15 per cent of electricity is generated from wind or solar sources, with the country well on the way to meeting the 2030 target of 30 per cent, in keeping with the goals of the National Energy Policy.