By Alexander Britell
The Caribbean’s green energy movement has made strides in recent years, from a burgeoning geothermal sector on islands like Nevis and Dominica to wind farms like the one at Wigton in Jamaica. It’s Jamaica, however, which is also on the cusp of potentially major headways in solar power, an energy source that is beginning to find traction in the region. Recently, the Jamaican government announced the renegotiation of some terms of the licence of the Jamaica Public Service Company, which include net billing, or the ability of Jamaicans who use green energy to actually sell unused energy back to the grid. To learn more, Caribbean Journal talked to Roger Chang, the president of the newly-revived Jamaica Solar Energy Association, about the progress of solar in Jamaica, the government’s green energy policy and the future of solar going forward.
How would you describe the progress of solar power in Jamaica?
We are on the cusp — we’re on the verge. The legislation for net billing is just about here; it has been released by the government. The are some technical issues that have to be worked out with the Jamaica Public Service in terms of the technical connections. I understand that it should be ready by the beginning of next year, in early January. So having said that, that should allow individuals, corporations and homeowners to now, instead of battery systems, grid type systems, which are significantly cheaper. The association is working with some financial institutions to allow the [solar] equipment to be used as collateral. With current interest rates and repayment terms, it will work out to where you are borrowing money to finance a system, and your monthly payments will be about what you would pay JPS [for your electric bill]. So you should be able to now borrow money, purchase a system and have a fixed monthly payment, about what you’re paying to JPS, and one that doesn’t go up. If you stay with JPS, if you look at our historical payments to JPS, it traditionally has gone up.
So you should be able to now borrow money, purchase a system and have a fixed monthly payment, about what you’re paying to JPS, and one that doesn’t go up”
There are a few dips now and then, but as we talk, it’s tied to our expensive cost of fuel, the most expensive being diesel or HFO, for most of our electricity generation. So we are currently paying JPS almost 40 cents per kilowatt hour; net billing, which is based on short-term avoided cost plus 15 percent, works out to about 25 cents per kilowatt hour, which is what JPS would pay you. So in the grand scheme of things, it’s not too bad. With all of that in place, or just about in place, it should increase take-up of renewable energy, and solar panels in particular.
What are some of the solar projects underway in Jamaica right now?
For large commercial projects, there are none that I can think of right now, because the ability to connect to the grid with net billing is not yet fully implemented. We’re just waiting on the technical aspects to be worked out. However, we do have a number of residential and small commercial [projects] being installed, on a very limited basis. For the most part, they are battery systems, which are very expensive and have a long payback period. I envision that by next year, the take-up for renewable energy should be much greater.
How would you describe the government’s stance on solar power?
Well, we do have our energy policy, which speaks to all the good things that we want to hear, including net metering. And they do have a renewable energy policy, they do have a green energy policy, so that is in the right direction. But the momentum of things getting done through the government is pretty slow. The first mandate of the Jamaica Solar Energy Association is to promote the use of solar energy in Jamaica, and we have a number of projects in a number of institutions we will be implementing very shortly. For example, we recognize that most of what is occurring is geared towards the commercial sector, meaning the DBJ [Development Bank of Jamaica] and the PetroCaribe funds, and not much towards residential.
So, having recognized the deficiency for householders, we are embarking on what we call an energy awareness/education campaign. We will collaborate with the IEEE’s [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] Jamaica chapter, using both University of the West Indies and University of Technology students to assign energy watt meters and do — we can’t call it an energy audit, because they’re not qualified as auditors — but basically, to go into householders and create awareness and do energy tests. They’ll explain to householders about their consumption, how much energy their appliances use, and give them a report. Out of that, hopefully by presenting them with technical options we will be able to achieve our first objective — promoting solar energy, whether it’s PV [photovoltaic] systems or water heaters.
In October, the Jamaican government announced a partnership with US firm Green RG on a series of pilot projects aimed at providing certain solar capabilities to government buildings and schools. Can you talk about that?
I know a little bit about it. It’s a good initiative, but again, it’s not a private sector initiative, it’s a government initiative, which is great — it will help the public sector reduce their energy consumption. Starting with schools, I understand they are initially going to audit about 140 primary schools, so that is indeed a good initiative to start.
What is the biggest challenge in moving solar energy forward in Jamaica?
Well, once we have the net billing on stream, that will help. Once we have the finances in place, it’s just a matter of public awareness and education. Like I mentioned, we’re on the verge of having consumers being able to purchase a PV system with the monthly repayment towards their loan being about the same as their current JPS bill. And that in itself should increase the take-up tremendously.
Where do you see green energy in Jamaica in a decade?
I envision that we will meet our target of 20 percent renewables, definitely within 10 years.
What’s next for the Association?
The Association has been dormant for a number of years [it was first launched in 1999]. We have just revived it, only a couple of months ago, so there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. We’re looking at our public education and awareness campaign and, hopefully next year, we want to put on a renewable energy expo.