The Jamaican experience

The Jamaican experience

The case for building a solar industry: Part 2

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

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JPS’ 800MW of total capacity (encompassing a plethora of small turbines) makes it a micro utility, smaller than a single generating plant in many parts of the world, since a single nuclear plant usually has some 1,200 MW capacity, so too a lot of coalfired plants. Small fossilfuelled or nuclear-fired plants are generally uncompetitive and push the price of electricity higher.

I note Minister Phillip Paulwell's attempts to lower electricity rates to below 30 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) based on imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) as the chosen fuel type, but I remain sceptical that this price drop will be achieved as long as we continue to use imported fuels.

Jamaica has no control over these fuel prices, and switching from one imported fossil fuel to another only brings temporary relief until world conditions change and cause market price increases to the fossil fuel of choice. Switching is not a sustainable solution.

Rather, it is very time-consuming and costly for the old system to be retrofitted to use the new choice fuel, more so for a small nation and an even smaller national electricity utility.

The amount recently projected to be spent to retrofit the Montego Bay 20-year plant is sufficient to construct a new 40-MW solar-PV plant with a 40-year lifespan. It’s better to do this and retire the present plant.

It would save a great deal in annual imported fuel costs. But back to Jamaica and solar-PV: our weather conditions make for electricity generated from (domestic irradiation and constantly renewable) solar to be conservatively priced in the region of US$0.10 to US$0.14 cents per kWh presently, this price having the inclusion of standard finance charges.

With solar power supplied to JPS and on-sold to their customers, this would translate to between 25 and 29 cents. With imported fuel, JPS prices are of the order of 35 to 42 cents. The utility company, on the other hand, can never go below 15 cents (their nonfuel costs), even with free fuel! But these solar-PV systems are even more desirable if no transmission charges (15 cents) are incurred.

They are ideal for just about everyone a "self-generation" basis — especially for enterprises that operate only during the daytime (offices, shops, factories), or those that can move most of its operation to daytime hours (supermarkets, homes, etc.). Seems JPS has not cottoned on to the notion of JPSowned solar generators supplied at the customer's premises.

Too mind-blowing a concept? Not according to the dominant utility in New Zealand (a country similar in size and economy and terrain to Jamaica, with similar heavy dependence on imported fuels).

There this has been done for the last two years, even including four hours of battery storage to eliminate the firing up of additional inefficient utility fossil-fuelled generators at peak evening hours. By removing the need for shortduration generation at peak evening hours, overall electricity rates are reduced.

Similarly, capital costs for these generators have been eliminated along with their associated finance obligations. NRG Energy in the USA, a 50-GW behemoth old-styled central generation fossil-fired utility, is following a somewhat similar route by now offering NRG-owned solar systems to its customers in a growing number of locales. Trying to get an acceptance of this preferred technology in Jamaica is, however, very challenging, fraught with mischief and mis-information and roadblocks, not least of which is the old-guard leadership personnel at business and government levels that apply bias to stall or block the progress of a new and disruptive technology like solar.

Breaking through the power broker's "cobwebs" will take super-human effort and a great deal of education of solar's advances.

Minister Paulwell, who drives Government’s national energy policy has his many detractors, is forced to proceed at reduced pace, despite his forward-looking drives that overturned the anachronistic monopoly telecoms stranglehold, and his ongoing attempt to do the same for the Jamaican electricity markets by: breaking the JPS monopoly and introducing competition such as private solar and wind; forcing the grid operator, at an agreed fee, to accept transmission from one company-owned premises for use at other premises ("wheeling"); using the public grid instead of batteries as storage for householders' solar over-production at midday hours ("net-metering"); and a host of other liberalising moves.

Finance offerings on the global market for solar have mushroomed, including installation companies (Vivint, Solar City, and a raft of other solar leasing companies for example), and project developers.

The recently awarded bid for the 200MW plant in Abu Dhabi in the Middle East just secured longterm financing of US$385 million for a whopping 85 per cent of the costs, with a 27- year loan term commitment at four per cent interest, all backed by a 25-year power purchase contract for the plant's output.

The output contract price is for electricity at 5.79 US cents per kWh.

Yes, you heard right — less than six cents per kWh fixed for the next 25 years. That's how low solar generation prices are, and they are dropping with each new installation.

Institutional financing is becoming more common and at excellent terms, given solar power's reliability and consistency and fixed-price of supply. Similar financing for fossil fuel generation is drying up, making it difficult for new fossil-fueled plant erections.

Fossil fueled power plants' financing prospects are growing limp. (Pardon my pun).

See Part 3 tomorrow... A case for all-domestic fuels

David Cooke is a UWItrained electrical engineer who's run enterprises in Jamaica that use large amounts of electricity, not least his own foodprocessing business that relied heavily on freezing and cold-storage operations. He is now a budding independent clean-energy developer. Contact him at:

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