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Stabroek News

Staunching the energy crisis
published: Sunday | May 6, 2007

Robert F. Evans, Contributor


Perhaps now that the sale of the Jamaica Public Service (JPS) is all but complete, there may now be an opportunity for Industry, Technology, Energy and Commerce Minister Phillip Paulwell to put policies in place to encourage renewable energy (RE) systems as a long-term policy for our survival.

This problem can be readily addressed by literally putting the power in the hands of the people by encouraging householders to produce renewableenergy.

Typically, a householder can install a system driven by roof panels and supply his/her daytime needs. Power can be stored for night-time use but this is expensive and one could therefore opt to bypass this ex-pense by using JPS fuel tanks for their storage. That is to say, the fuel saved in the day can be burnt at night. The same is true for windmills, but the geographic location of the majority of houses dictates that solar-energy production will be the mode of preference.

This strategy should not significantly interfere with the financial integrity of the JPS because, obviously, if they are used as a stand-by system, then they must be paid a fair and reasonable cost for maintaining their plant and lines in good order while awaiting our demand.

Future tariffs

How can the householder be encouraged to invest in a solar-energy system?

Before answering the question, one should ask what electricity bills are likely to be when oil reaches US$100/barrel!

The PetroCaribe arrangement with the government of Venezuela is a loan that shields us from the real price and when that facility expires, electricity costs will immediately soar to astronomical figures and we will also be obliged to repay the loan.

The point is that whatever you pay now will, in all likelihood, pale in comparison with future tariffs, and, on top of that, we must repay the PetroCaribe loan - a most frightening and dismal prospect!

It is, therefore, a critical imperative that funds available through the PetroCaribe be used in a cost-effective manner to prepare Jamaica for the day when payback is due. Indeed, it is my belief that not one cent of this money should be spent unless justified by an economic feasibility analysis.

Through this initiative, funds could be made available to applicants to purchase a renewable system plus a solar water heater at concessionary interest rates. The basis of loan approval could be that one third of the borrower's current energy bill can repay the loan over 20 years at a nominal interest rate.

The remaining two thirds of the bill could pay JPS for their night usage and for JPS availability - no doubt leaving a savings. All this is based on costs now.

It can only get better in the future - $3,350 per month paid over 20 years at three per cent will repay $600,000.

If the Government is prepared to go all the way and source and purchase the solar and wind equipment in large bulk, the J$600,000 will deliver a two-kilowatt system which typically is sufficient on average to run a two- to three-bedroom house with a family of four to five. This is no pipe dream.

The rooftops of Germany produce enough solar power to run the entire island of Jamaica! And they don't have as much sunlight as we do. But wait! There's more.

In Germany, the government encourages the production of clean energy by legislating that the electricity provider pay the homeowner as much as 10 per cent greater than the rate they invoice.

Trend-setting technique

This is to encourage the homeowners to produce excess of renewable energy for sale to the national grid. This is what I call a trend-setting technique for taking the energy and pollution problems seriously.

Because the demand will not be constant, with a 2KW system there will be surplus at some times and a deficit at others. So, throughout the day, power will be delivered to the grid at one time and taken from the grid at another.

When the householder or business generates a surplus, JPS should purchase that surplus for, at the very least, 70 per cent of its selling cost. The remaining 30 per cent should pay JPS's line and billing costs. Remember, JPS will collect separately for being used as stand-by service.

Also, if the process of residential production becomes widespread, Jamaica's very high line losses will tend to zero, because the power produced by a landowner will be absorbed by the closest demand - perhaps a few doors down the road.

Although desirable in my mind, it is unlikely that there will come a time in the foreseeable future when all daylight usage is from rooftops (and the like) and a net daytime surplus will be generated.

In this unlikely event, JPS could 'store' the excess energy for night-time use. The surplus daytime electricity could be used to pump water uphill to an artificial dam (or headpond, to use the term of art) and thus run a hydroelectric turbine at night. If you think this is costly, I again ask: What will rates be when oil is US$100 per barrel?

Competition in the generation of electricity - i.e. different com-panies producing power and selling to the grid - is a worldwide trend. When that time arrives here, (hopefully soon), then the Govern-ment must decree a sizeable minimum payment for renewable energy as an incentive for the fuel savings and environmental cleanliness of that kind of power.

Break dependence

Jamaica is too sun-drenched a country for escalating oil prices to pose a problem if the government is serious about addressing the issues.

The PetroCaribe fund is indeed a godsend because, if used wisely, it can effectively remove the need for the Government to allocate scarce funds for generation of our own electricity. We can break the dependence on fossil fuels.

To quote a line from Jimmy Cliff: "You can get it if you really want!" But do we really want it?

We must act now. We cannot pass this buck to succeeding generations, uncaring whether they must endure a lifetime by candlelight to pay off the overwhelming debts of the future.

Robert Evans is an engineer who practices in the construction industry.

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