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Putting legs under renewable energy in Jamaica

Let’s get serious about reducing Jamaica’s dependency on oil. Photovoltaics (the use of solar panels to create electricity) is one way to go at this time but there are simple things we must and can do before we get there. Solar water heaters, LED bulbs and inverter refrigerators would have a positive effect on the national economy.

For instance, if 50,000 homes used 2000 watt electric heaters (about a 20 gallon system) for 90 minutes per day for 5 years, the electricity consumed in five years would be about 270-million kilowatts (approx. J$10 billion in electricity costs) and this would require about 370,000 barrels of oil (about J$3.3billion) to produce – or about one and one-half barrels of oil per household per year. Oil costs about US$100 per barrel these days and a 40 gallon solar water heater costs about J$95,000 which paints a clear picture.

Solar panels, a possible way for Jamaica to reduce its energy bill.


The electric heater used in this example would cost you about J$3,600 each month to run and so, depending on the cost of money, repayment would be about 3 to 4 years.

Whenever a country reduces its “carbon footprint” i.e. reduces the amount of carbon dioxide it generates by burning oil the resultant savings may be a saleable commodity. If that country’s emissions fall below a set quota the unused amount can be sold as carbon credits which can be purchased, privately or on the open market, by entities whose operation generate in excess of their own allotment.

Solar water heaters

All of this is by international convention. My scenario of 50,000 homes replacing electric water heaters with solar water heaters would, over five years reduce the carbon dioxide emissions by about 310,000 tons and this could potentially be sold for about J$540 million.

Imagine if the Government came up with a J$4 billion programme to supply and install 50,000 solar water heaters to replace electric heaters. The reduced oil bill plus carbon credit sales would accrue to about J$3.8 billion to the nation over five years. That is not the end of it. There would be the benefit of job creation (for installation) and taxation of income from the workers involved. It would seem that the short pay-back time for this programme is deserving of consideration.

The Government is aware of the advantages in promoting the use of solar water heaters and the NHT has a very commendable programme of lending up to J$250,000 for 5 years at 3 per cent provided there is a title for the property and the borrower is a current contributor. For the solar water used in this scenario the monthly payment would be less than the savings on the electricity bill! So there is every reason to take advantage of this facility for personal and national reasons. Due to the national advantage, however, the NHT should perhaps consider lending to others and not only current contributors.

LED bulbs

|LED bulbs are currently the most efficient bulbs on the market today. A 5-watt LED bulb is equivalent to a 16W fluorescent bulb (CFL) or a 70W incandescent light. A household using ten 5W LEDs for an average of five hours per day will incur a monthly “light” bill of about J$300 per month for these bulbs. (Fluorescent bulbs to provide the same lighting would cost about J$900 per month.) If this were applied to 50,000 households over five years the LEDs compared with CFLs would save J$600 milllion of oil imports and allow some J$100 million in carbon credit. The five hundred thousand 5W bulbs would cost about J$550 million and each bulb should last for over ten years. This could likely be a feasible project for Government funding. Yes, there was a light bulb scandal before but this does not mean that we must not try again – we must learn from the past. LED bulbs are too cost-efficient to ignore.

One or two 100-watt solar panels can supply all the electricity for LED lighting for a middle class home and further increase the savings in oil and income from carbon credits. Perhaps the local electrical code should consider mandating that lights to be on a sub-panel for easy of separation of lights from the mains supply so that a Solar panel can be easily be used for lighting with mains power as back-up.

If your fridge is about ten years old chances are that you are using twice as much energy as a modern fridge. The most modern energy-efficient fridge – the inverter fridge – uses about 40 per cent of the power of other modern refrigerators. Again, continuing my scenario let’s look at 50,000 inverter fridges. The oil plus carbon credits saved over five years would be as much as J$700 million compared to other modern fridges. Remember that this refers to modern refrigerators and that the savings could easily be twice as much depending on the age and type or refrigerator. So when it is time to replace a fridge this is what you should take into account. An inverter fridge is most cost effective if you supply your own electricity because you can use less panels in your photovoltaic system.

Solar panels

Consider the situation if we go all the way and put 50,000 houses fully off-grid – i.e. supplying their own electricity by solar panels. The cost for the systems would be approximately J$28 billion. Solar panels are now quite cost effective, but batteries are not as economical. That hurdle can be overcome by developing a local industry. Locals are getting into the Lead/Acid battery industry and are targeting the deep cycle battery market. Over a 5 year horizon these systems could save some J$14 billion in oil and carbon credits. This suggests a 10 year payback (oil at US$100/barrel) but how many expect that price to hold for ten years? World oil has peaked – i.e. most readily accessible oil is used up and current supplies are difficult to mine.

Where does all this take us?

Airlift has impacted the shipping business; post offices have scaled down due to the use of email; camera films sales have crashed due to digital cameras; cellular telephony has all but knocked out landline telephony; cable television has reduced movie box office sales; answering machines and computers and automation have put people out of work; and the list goes on and on, and, somewhere, in the not too distant future, the giant power companies will give ground to individual power production. Up until recently (if not still so) Bermuda, an island with near zero unemployment and good financial statistics did not have piped water and instead, homes store roof run off under the building. I now see electricity heading in the general direction of using the top of the building. Yes, Jamaica was one of the first countries in the world to have mains electricity but let us not be the last to recognize the inevitable changes.

So if we spend so much less on oil, even if our earnings remain stagnant, do we get growth? Minister of Energy, Philip Paulwell is well aware of all that is going on in the world of energy and we expect him to guide us through the process of change as he did for telecommunications.

Next time let’s look closer at air conditioning and motor cars and start with the fact that a small conventional automobile produces as much carbon as a small family!

Robert Evans is a Civil Engineer.

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