Land boundary restriction

strangling growth of solar

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

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The market for household solar in Jamaica is too small to sustain dedicated solar installation companies. They would starve; I have tried. This is almost entirely due to the monopoly licence for all-island supply held by Jamaica Public Service (JPS), making it illegal (or at least anti-competitive) to supply private power across the boundaries of individual premises. Only power for individual, personal use is allowed. Grouping blocks of residences and supplying same from a centralised solar array is not considered as individual supply. This land boundary consideration also makes it impossible for solar companies to buy solar equipment in bulk, which could easily slash solar-electricity prices and make it immediately attractive.


It is impossible, too, for businesses to generate their own solar power on one property and supply the excess to another property owned by the same business but operating next door or across the street. I have personally suffered this indignity.


But the grouped method, which would mean that power to each home is generated from nearby solar locations, not individual roofs, and supplied via existing power lines or otherwise, would bring electricity costs down to US$0.15 per KWh or lower, as opposed to the more than US$0.30 JPS has been charging in recent times, and the whopping US$0.42 back in 2014.


This slashed price would greatly widen and grow the market for Jamaican households via neighbourhood-scale arrays of panels, making the market sufficiently large for dedicated solar companies to be viable. I therefore urge the government to amend the monopoly all-island JPS licence just a wee bit, eliminating land boundary restrictions for a proposed community-scale solar garden of up to 150 KW to supply neighbourhood groups of the equivalent of 30 middle-income houses.


Surely, it must be illegal for JPS to force anyone to buy its expensive power if those individuals have the ability to provide their own cheaper power irrespective of separate boundary lines. If it is not illegal, it should be!


Forcing JPS to compete with lower-priced power, albeit on a small scale, would force them to find ways to compete. This would open their minds to solar possibilities and distributed power, not centralised power at exorbitant prices. Centralised generation is the preferred method for shareholders of utilities but it’s not the best for consumers. It would only be preferable if it produces lower-priced electricity. In JPS’s case, its licence stipulates that it provides "affordable" power to every customer. Power prices that compete with our monthly house-rent, as is frequently the case, especially in poorer families, is therefore a violation of these customer contracts. Customers should therefore be allowed to go elsewhere without fear of retribution.


Only then will JPS wake up and follow the lead of America’s largest power utility, Duke Energy Corp which will soon be launching its solar garden concept in seven states simultaneously, including Florida and the Carolinas. The customers will own the facilities, and are projected to pay off their share of this 10-year payment programme in three years. (The excess payments become profit for the utility). Enlightened power utilities are going this route to protect their market; either they provide community-scale solar gardens or individual households will supply their own solar power.


Check out Green Mountain Power (GMP) in Burlington, Vermont and its latest offering to individual households. According to the company’s website, its off-grid package includes an energy-efficiency audit in partnership with Efficiency Vermont, a solar array, battery storage, home automation controls that allow customers to manage energy resources and usage, and a generator for backup that may be used for short periods of time if needed. In addition to producing their own clean energy, customers will have a flat monthly fee for their energy instead of the fluctuations they experience today.


Imagine if we had this offering from JPS. Imagine the impact on building viable Jamaican solar installation companies! In previous years, I told you of similar programmes in the New Zealand islands. With the help of enlightened and strong governmental policies, this island nation, which bears some similarity to Jamaica, has increased its share of clean-energy to over 80 per cent in a few short years. Electricity reliability has improved.


Back to Jamaica. Once we break free of boundary line restrictions, Jamaican installers could then turn their attention to educating customers on how best to finance the systems, which is the biggest hurdle. Financing the system under a home improvement loan with a 25-year pay-back period would halve the monthly payments! Your previously unaffordable JPS bill would be cut by some 60 per cent and the monthly savings could be used to pay off the loan faster.


For micro-households, the now-empowered Jamaican solar companies should be allowed to offer small solar offerings in affordable amounts in the same way that we can buy small amounts of phone credit. This is being done in Uganda, Nigeria, and Rwanda and it is spreading to other poor countries. This service is controlled by your smartphone, including payment and disconnection/reconnection. Space and time does not allow for the details, so see for yourselves how powerful an idea this is at this link: www.fenixintl.com


But these matters are best taken up and fought by the Jamaica Solar Energy Society. I cannot fight their battles for them, just help educate. Let them raise their own voices.


Or maybe we should have the proposed "Wigton Domestic Energy" (as per my previous article) take over the lead role of community solar gardens for neighbourhoods and off-grid communities backed by levy finances, and then sub-contract the work to Jamaican solar companies.


The adoption of community solar arrays would prove beneficial to JPS as well because in a very real way, as communities where electricity theft is prominent could be collectively solarised, thereby stemming losses, physically isolating current supply to these communities and improving revenue by at least the US$20 million which the company reportedly writes off to theft per year. (By my calculation the figure is closer to US$13 million monthly, not US$20 million annually and if I’m correct, it seems that we, the paying customers, are almost entirely paying for the majority of un-accounted for electricity via our monthly light bills. Imagine how much lower all our bills would be, if community solar were allowed and these communities owned their solar installations and monthly bill payments became the solar loan payback for their individual share, as per Duke Energy.


Then JPS and everyone would be well served and happy. Imagine the stress relief to the once "nice" JPS CEO who now threatens draconian measures for theft, as well as the freeing up of the police personnel who accompany the JPS disconnection crews. The JPS head could become "nice" again like she used to be when she started the job. LOL!


Ah well, even I am allowed to dream a little and have a little fun, am I not?


See my next article for the wrap-up.





David Cooke is a UWI-trained electrical engineer who is now a budding independent clean-energy developer. Contact him at:
deeco3@earthlink.net

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