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Why not go solar?

Power cuts are a thing of the past for Morris Hutchinson’s household, and the rising cost of crude oil on the international market gives him no cause for concern. He has not paid an electricity bill in four years, despite his family (wife and two young children) enjoying air conditioning at their convenience, ironing clothes at will, and enjoying the use of a washing machine, microwave oven, and other electrical appliances.

This is because his house is run entirely off renewable sources of energy – 95 per cent solar and five per cent wind. Some 18 panels, aligned on two solar trackers atop their house in Portmore, supplemented by a wind turbine, provide all the electricity they need.

Hutchinson is the owner of Alternative Energy Plus, a relatively young company with a reputation for delivering top-quality service in designing and installing solar systems. The company has a contract to put in a system at the Portmore Maxie store, following the installation of one at Juici Patties in Clarendon, with a number of smaller contracts to its credit.

Potentially viable business

A mechanical engineer, Hutchin-son got turned on to renewable energy while pursuing a Bachelor of Science course at the University of Technology. This prompted him to seek advice from people in the business and do troubleshooting online in an effort to learn as much as possible. From this fascination with renewable energy has emerged a potentially viable business in a largely uncharted area locally.

High start-up costs and a lack of understanding by the general public about the reliability of solar energy systems are among the hurdles facing the company. Still, his belief in the practicality of renewable energy has Hutchinson fully committed to this way of life and business.

“It is 100 per cent more consistent than JPS (Jamaica Public Service Company Limited), more steady and safer. We don’t get fluctuations in power supply; the system doesn’t just shut down or blank out. There is a meter which tells you exactly what is happening – that you have a 50 per cent charge, that you have collected X kilowatt hours, and that your usage was Y – so you are in deficit. It’s fully computerised,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.

“When you are doing a 100 per cent system, it has to be engineered or bulletproof for all those situations. So you are looking at your panel size – how much power you collect, how much you really need, how much you really need in the event of extended overcast conditions,” he explained.

Ignorance on the part of people contemplating a switch to solar and bad advice from some service providers are to blame in part for its slow take-off in Jamaica.

Hutchinson pointed out that while panels are used to collect energy from the sun, this energy, in turn, is stored in a battery bank, which should have a storage of 24 hours, or whatever is desirable for the specific situation. However, because the energy is stored in the form of DC (direct current), it must be converted to AC (alternating current) for household use. This is accomplished through an inverter, which converts the energy on demand.

“If you turn on a bulb which is pulling 60 watts, then it will only convert 60 watts to run that bulb. If you turn on a microwave which is 1,500 watts, then it converts 1,500 watts for that particular load,” the engineer explained.

Good investment

The rate of conversion rises and falls in sync with the number and types of appliances switched on or plugged in.

The Portmore resident estimates that based on the average of 500 kilowatt hours per month his system produces, the electricity bill, if hooked up to the national grid, would run to about $20,000 per month. In fact, he said, replicating the system, which includes a water pump for his water tank, at today’s rate would cost in the region of $2.2 million.

Even as he admitted that this would be a prohibitive sum for most people, Hutchinson noted that the cost-effectiveness equation most often used is sometimes warped, depending on how one looks at it.

“If you do a straight-line calculation to show payback period, how long will my investment take to pay for itself, you’re looking at 20 or 15 years. However, when you put the rate of inflation and the time value of money in that calculation, you find that solar systems can pay back for themselves in as little as six years. The bigger the system, the faster the payback.”

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