A Case for Solar Energy

Solar Energy

The Jamaican policy-makers are nowhere closer to finding a lasting solution to the energy crisis that the country is currently facing given the fact that the 381 MW project has ran into another road block.  The Enterprise Team announced by the Government as part of the strategy to move the process forward was only this week cleared by an Act of Parliament to begin its work.  In the meantime the pain of high energy prices being inflicted on the consumers continue unabated.


What are the short-term options that are currently available to the Jamaican policy-makers that will ameliorate this situation?  The country is not facing a power shortage, so adding additional capacity such as gas turbines for base loading as was the case in the early 1980 is not the solution.  Replacing the JPS generating units at Hunts Bay and Old Harbour is at least five to six years away and given the uncertainty of natural gas supplies, this is not quite the solution.

I think it is time the policy makers take a serious look at using renewables, especially using solar to bring the average price of electricity down in the short term.  If this was to happen, three critical questions need answering which are, can this be done, how soon and at what cost?

Can this be done?

Jamaica is located approximately 18° North of the Equator and is ideally suited to take advantages of the abundance of energy from the sun.  Germany, which is located approximately 45° North of the Equator has taken the policy decision to replace nuclear with solar power and this one prime example of the achievability of using solar.  Advances in solar panel technology have made this feasible even to the point of producing electricity during heavy cloud cover.  Closer to home in Florida, Florida Power & Light is using solar energy to produce heat that drives steam turbines to produce electricity.

Using solar produced electricity does have challenges as it relates to interconnection to the electricity distribution network.  However, currently available technologies can and have made this challenges somewhat less than a challenge.  Further work is continuing on the development of interconnection protocols for solar and renewable energy systems into the distribution network.

How soon?

Deploying a utility graded solar farm takes approximately six (6) months, given the availability of the equipment, such as the panels and inverters: whereas a fossil fuel solution will take a minimum of thirty-six to forty-eight months from design to commissioning. However, this is heavily dependent on the investors having the necessary financing in place, which exist for all construction projects of this nature.

What Cost?

The price differential gap between solar energy solutions and fossil fuel based solutions has been closing.  As solar panel efficiency levels improve and prices fall, solar energy has now become an attractive alternative.  The argument has been made in the United States that if the use of solar energy had been given the same level of tax incentive as fossil fuel is given, then the price differential gap would have been zero.  This is still speculative, but nonetheless the argument has been made.

A recent solar feasibility study undertaken by LIMCO Engineering Inc. for a rate 50-power user, with approximate 40,000 sq. metres of available land space to install solar panels revealed that the cost per kWh to produce energy from solar was US$0.15 versus the US$0.40 currently being paid to JPS.  The estimated annual savings would be approximately $222M.  The required investment excluding any incentives that may be offered by Government was approximately $1.2B for a 4.5 MW utility-graded solar plant.  The cost per watt inclusive of infrastructure was $266 (US$2.35 per watt). The simple payback period was approximately 6 years.

The feasibility study revealed that this investment is feasibility and doable. When this same customer was benchmarked using Florida Power & Light existing rates (January 2014) the situation facing this entity is even more alarming.  When the Florida Power & Light (FPL) rates were applied to the annual consumption of this entity, the annual electricity cost was $125.5M at the current exchange rate.  The annual energy charge paid last year by this entity to JPS was $458M.

Conclusion

Jamaica is the land of abundant sunshine.  Our backs are against the wall as it relates to energy cost to the ordinary Jamaican and now is the time for bold decisions to be made.  More efficient generating units are approximately five to six years away from reality, and the current generating model cannot hold as it highly inefficient and expensive.  Solar is a viable short-term alternative that should be pursued at all cost and the policy-makers should move with dispatch to create the necessary framework for increasing the use of solar energy in the short term. This position is not in contradiction of my earlier stated position (Refer Blog “Our Energy Crisis – Understanding the Choices” dated February 25, 2014), as that article was more focus on finding the correct solution matrix for our energy problem in the medium to long-term.  However, given the fact that the EWI bid has gone nowhere and the country is still stuck with JPS old inefficient generating units, this has guided my argument towards solar as a viable short-term solution in bring the average KWH cost of energy down.

Now is not the time for timidity or fear, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his inauguration address approximately 84 years ago during one the darkest economic moments of the United States, “THE ONLY THING WE HAVE TO FEAR IS FEAR ITSELF”.

Author: Courtney O. Currie, PE.

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