EDITORIAL - Solar, yes, but fix the grid

Published: Monday | July 16, 2012 Comments 0

We were truly impressed with what Phillip Paulwell has done at his home - the conversion to solar as its primary source of electric power.

Mr Paulwell, of course, is not the first person in Jamaica to do this. But as minister with responsibility for energy, his may be a persuasive example for a more robust Jamaican engagement of renewable energy sources, to reduce the use of petroleum that accounts for more than 90 per cent of energy. Oil is not only expensive, but more environmentally pollutant than other fuels.

Additionally, sunshine, as a fuel, is plentiful. The sun is estimated to generate more energy in an hour than the world's requirement for a year.

The downside of solar energy to power a national grid, as with many renewables, is its supply and distribution instability, and the cost of technology - though declining - is still relatively expensive. The cost will have to reach grid parity with other technologies before it begins to replace other fuels.

Solar beneficial but ...

In the meantime, however, some firms and private individuals will find solar a useful and attractive alternative to oil and other hydrocarbons. Some governments may even find it economically, politically and environmentally strategic to encourage its use, which we presume to be the point of Mr Paulwell's showing off of his solar panels and storage batteries.

Indeed, most people will find extremely attractive, and would be happy to enjoy, an 83 per cent decline in their monthly electricity bills from the light and power company, as has been reported by Mr Paulwell. He now pays around J$4,000 a month.

But there is a catch. Few Jamaicans could upfront the J$2 million that Mr Paulwell invested for his home conversion. Given his past bills, Mr Pauwell will recoup his investment in around seven years and could reasonably enjoy returns on his capital for another eight.

So, as attractive as these numbers seem, the returns are too far in the future and the upfront costs too high to encourage hordes of individuals to leave the national grid for solar. Nor are firms, except for the few for which the economics are compelling, likely to do so in droves.

Mr Paulwell, wearing his energy hat, has to run on many tracks at the same time. He must promote policies that will make solar and other renewables attractive and affordable.

An economically competitive grid

But more urgently, he has to ensure that there is a more efficient and economically competitive national grid.

At around US$0.40 per kilowatt-hour, Jamaica has among the most expensive electricity in the Caribbean. This has been a major contributor to the denuding of the Jamaican manufacturing sector and also has a hobbling effect on services - whose operations are heavily electricity dependent.

There has been much heated debate in recent years on these issues, including, at one point, a decision to proceed with a conversion to natural gas at some of our power plants. The Jamaica Public Service Company has the monopoly for the transmission and distribution of electricity, and won the tender for more than 400 megawatts of gas-fired power plants. That process, however, seems to have run out of steam, as, it appears, have Mr Paulwell's other energy initiatives.

Energy is too important a matter to be subject to the Jamaican penchant for talk without effective action.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.

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