Towards independence in electricity

Thursday, August 30, 2012    

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It was National Hero Norman Washington Manley who said that the mission of his generation was to achieve political independence. He further said that the mission of the next generation would be to achieve economic independence. But economic independence is clearly a harder task to achieve than political independence. And a main ingredient in the achievement of economic independence is in having independence in electricity.

In the days before the world oil crisis which began in December 1973, independence in electricity was not an issue as oil was cheap. But since that time there has been talk of having alternative sources of energy because of increasingly higher prices. The oil-producing countries then played their underselling game and Jamaica dropped its plans of creating alternative energy because of temporarily cheaper oil prices that sky-rocketed to very higher prices once the alternative energy plans were dropped.

In the 1990s the government of the day decided that our light and power company, the Jamaica Public Service, would be best divested to private people. Government could not manage JPS in such a way that there were not constant power cuts caused by breakdowns of the generators. But private owners are only interested in profit, which is one reason for higher prices. Another reason is the rising prices caused by the US Gulf War. From the 1990s the JPS has been using a certain amount of windmill energy. Then came 9/11 in 2001. The United States of America needed alternative sources of energy to fight their war in the Middle East as the oil available was not enough.

In any case, the available oil was being used by both sides of the war to fuel war planes and whatever else. As a result of all this, oil supplies dwindled and as a consequence oil prices went up. This has brought to the fore once again the argument for greater use of alternative energy, and more important its actual implementation to some extent. It is true that we may be stuck with JPS for many more years as suggested by the headline of Mark Wignall's column on August 16.

But it does appear that despite all the obstacles listed in Wignall's column, independence in electricity is slowly but surely coming. Already it is being done by using solar, windmill or a combination of both without going through the red tape, trauma and rigmarole and whatever other delays of attempting to share the grid with JPS. Indeed, solar panels on roofs of houses are becoming very common. Is it the JPS that has gone into solar energy with the street lights on the Highway leading into Portmore, St Catherine, or is it the foreign contractors? Incidentally, JPS also has some hydro-electric power plants and has always had them.

My interest in solar, hydro and windmill is partly out of concern for our political and economic independence and partly subjective. I am an asthmatic and am affected by the smoke from oil generators and also from coal energy - which is being marketed as safe for health due to improved technology, but I am not convinced. I am not really in favour of any source of energy that requires burning for its effectiveness.

And I am aware that in Jamaica, just about everyone has a relative who is asthmatic if they do not themselves suffer from the condition. In other words, "is nuff a wi".

That aside, both coal and Liquid Natural Gas would be imported, if we went that route. So imported cheap coal as well as cheap LNG would lead to a similar dependence on outside supplies leading to the spending of precious foreign exchange.

I believe that coal and LNG are now cheap because the owners of such commodities are attracting buyers. But both might become expensive if we are put in a position where we cannot do without it because we have nothing else. Indeed, I believe that it is the age-old game of undersell, put the competitor out of business and then jack up the price afterwards.

But to politicians, cheaper electricity translates into more votes at election time. Energy minister Phillip Paulwell promotes cheaper energy, even if it is more hazardous and even if it encourages dependency. But has anyone in the People's National Party guessed that by the time election comes around the cheap coal and cheap LNG may skyrocket to the point where the voters swing away from the PNP? Or is there a plan by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to call a snap election the minute the electricity prices fall?

Our aim should be to avoid any form of energy that increases dependency and detrimental to health. We should instead be looking towards complete independence in electricity, even if the capital outlay in its initial years is costly, especially with regard to solar energy. And with all the hurdles listed by Mark Wignall, the quicker we move on this the better. To our credit, we have started already.





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