THE idea that coal should be considered as one of Jamaica's primary alernative fuels to oil, even within the context of what has been described as advances in clean coal technology, is not without its challenges experts contend.
One proposed location for such a plant — deep in the St Ann hills — may not be realisable given the difficulty of transporting bulky material such as coal over hills, according to noted energy expert Dr Raymond Wright.
Then there are the aesthetic issues, not least the unsightly mining towers and other paraphernalia of the trade that would prove unsettling to tourists and locals alike in the garden parish, Wright notes.
"Besides, placing coal in such a prominent role in the energy mix goes against the curve of the conventional wisdom on energy's future, as leading thinkers in the field hold the view that the world's energy future is settling around a consensus on wider use of renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage," said Wright in a recent interview. Among the environmental negatives of coal is the ash fallout and the acid rain-inducing sulphur deposits, among others.
Wright observes, however, that coal is relatively cheap and supplies are abundant and projected to last for a long time into the future given current rates of use, so Jamaica may well consider it as part of the country's energy mix, but not in that location or on a large scale.
There are also high costs associated with "cleaning" coal.
Clean coal is an umbrella term used to describe methods that have been developed to reduce the environmental impact of coal-based electricity.
According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (See the UN IPCC Fourth Assessment Report), sequestered CO2 may eventually leak up through the ground, may lead to unexpected geological instability or may cause contamination of aquifers used for drinking water supplies.
Meanwhile, Energy and Mining Minister, James Robertson is less than enthusiastic about the prospects of coal as Jamaica's main energy source.
Roberston labelled the fuel as "unsustainable, costly and dangerous". He said there are a range of ancillary costs related to making coal safe, which cancelled out the other advantages such as its low purchase cost.
"Cement and coal in the region where you (Referring to recommendations made by Opposition MP Lisa Hanna) are possibly thinking of..., I can't see it passing any environmental test or standards," he said during debate on the new energy policy.
Mitigating against the environmental cost of coal, at this time, is "not possible," he told his parliamentarian colleagues.
"All the checks we have made, this country would not find financing for a coal project based on the criteria that would be put to the test," the minister said.
His choice is liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is to be introduced into the energy mix under a private sector-led project.
"The LNG option offers significant benefits to the country. It is important, for example, to point out that at the current differential between crude oil and natural gas prices, Jamaica would save at least US$300 million per annum on energy import costs, even after taking into account the cost of the infrastructure necessary to handle LNG," Robertson noted.
"In this regard, the US$300 million per annum that we could now be saving if we had LNG, excludes the loss of earnings by the plants in the bauxite and alumina sector that had to cease or reduce operations owing to their inability to compete with plants elsewhere, due primarily to their use of oil as the main source of energy," he added.
According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, coal, a fossil fuel, is a major contributor to global warming, responsible for some 25 per cent of the phenomenon, mainly through coal for electricity generation.
Used as a fuel for centuries, coal ranks second only to petroleum among energy resources with reserves projected to last another 150 years at current rates of use (World Energy Council n.d.).
The study notes that technologies related to reducing the environmental impact of extracting energy from coal do not address environmental impacts of coal mining such as the disastrous Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill in Tennessee in the US in 2008. It was the largest coal-related slurry spill in United States history and is now estimated to cost between $675 and $975 million to clean up.