JIS News

As efforts to contain and, ultimately, reduce the country’s spiralling fuel bill continue, solar power, a renewable form of energy, is being further explored to determine how best to harness its properties, in order to greater utilise it as an alternative to oil.
It is the light and heat radiating from the sun that influences the earth’s climate and weather, and sustains life, and refers primarily to the use of solar radiation for practical ends. All other forms of renewable energy, save for geothermal, derive their energy from energy received from the sun.
Since ancient times, scientists have utilised a range of technologies to harness the sun’s energy for mankind’s benefit. Solar radiation, along with secondary solar resources such as wind and wave power, hydroelectricity, and biomass, account for over 99 per cent of the renewable energy options available globally.
“There is an enormous amount of energy being radiated from the sun, and that energy comes in the form of heat and light. In fact, if you look at the records, it really shows that the sun provides 6000 times the energy that the global population uses. So there is enough energy that is radiated from the sun that could supply the whole world…without depleting it,” explains Director of the Computing and Engineering Entrepreneurial Centre, at the University of Technology (UTech), Owen Gunning.
He tells JIS News, that the benefits of solar energy are auspicious and, as such, individuals are being encouraged to explore solar as a viable option in the efforts at energy conservation.
According to Mr. Gunning, solar energy technologies can provide hot water, space heating; lighting, and thermal comfort in passive buildings; potable water via distillation and disinfection; space cooling by absorption or vapour-compression refrigeration; thermal energy for cooking; high temperature process heat for industrial purposes; and transportation. Additionally, he notes that it will reduce the dependence on imported oil.
“Jamaica requires roughly about 550 megawatts of power, which is approximately one fifth of 2.5 gigawatts of solar power which is now being supplied by the world. If you were to take all of that energy that is being generated by solar, it could supply Jamaica’s need four times over. So in fact, there is enough energy, if you can harness it, to supply all our needs. [This] could really make us totally independent of fossil fuel,” he explains, adding that the question of harnessing and the specifics relating to the cost of installing converters and collectors of this energy are the major focal points which are being further examined.
Solar technologies are broadly characterised as either passive or active, depending on the way they capture, convert, and distribute sunlight. Active solar techniques use photovoltaic (PV) panels, pumps, and fans to convert sunlight into useful outputs. PV systems use solar electric panels to directly convert the sun’s energy into electricity. This conversion of sunlight to electricity occurs without moving parts, is silent, and pollution free in its operation.
On the other hand, passive solar techniques include selecting materials with favourable thermal properties, designing spaces that naturally circulate air, and referencing the position of a building to the sun.
Mr. Gunning asserts that as it relates to the solar water heater and its conversion rate, “it is just a matter of [the] solar collectors collecting it and, maybe, using it for solar water heaters,” he says, lamenting that “in a country like ours where you have so much sunlight, you should not be using electrical water heaters.”
He points out that the sun supplies in the region of 1.4 kilowatts of power per square metre, and that an average electrical heater uses approximately two kilowatts of power.
“If you use it for four hours, it’s eight kilowatt hours of power and for 30 days maybe 120 kilowatt hours. If you look at the cost of electricity for domestic users, which is comprised of two components, energy charges and Fuel and IPP charges. Energy charges are about $9 per kilowatt hours while Fuel and IPP (Independent Power Producers) varies with the cost of fuel in March 2008, it was approximately $14. Consequently, the savings for someone like a domestic user, who uses his or her water heater for four hours per day, would be $2,760. Of course you have people using it much more often than that…and naturally they would use more of it.”
He adds that solar water heaters cost somewhere in the region of $100,000, and probably an estimate of around $20,000 for installation, “so we’re talking about $120,000 to install a solar water heater.”
“If you look at the payback.and that does not include the fact that the cost of electricity keeps going up, due to the devaluation of the dollar, due to inflation and (the fact that the) ‘utility company’, in general, keeps increasing their cost of electricity, if you combine all of those, you are looking at a payback of about five years for solar water heaters.”
Mr. Gunning further notes that another form of conversion is that of solar energy to electricity.
This form of conversion, he adds, is much more expensive because, locally, it costs somewhere in the region of $1,000 per watt for the photovoltaic (PV) panels, noting that there is a disincentive to purchasing it because of its expense.
Despite its expense, Mr. Gunning explains that the power it produces, makes it compatible with the utility, in fact, “if you get a good converter, the quality of the power could even be better than that of the utility [company] and of course, you have different qualities.”
He explains that the solar electricity can be used by means of “net metering” to offset the need for purchased utility electricity, adding that if the PV electricity exceeds the home’s requirements, the excess electricity can be sent back to the utility grid, typically for credit.
He posits that the usage of solar in the island is not as expansive as it should be, adding that a heightened degree of public education needs to be undertaken. “I don’t think that there is enough effort being placed on solar energy, and in fact I dare say, similarly to how they have agricultural field officers, you might get to the point where you might have to get field officers for solar. Meaning, people that go out and encourage, advise persons, and explain to them and show them how it can be done.”
Mr. Gunning points out that there are infrastructures which are in place to ensure that the energy is harnessed over a protracted period of time. “For countries that are installing solar generators, you put in enough backup supplies such as batteries, and that can take you through the night; so you are storing all that energy that you are getting from the sun. But certainly, you can store enough overnight until the sun comes up the next day,” he says. He adds, however, that he is unsure as to “what will happen if you lose the sun over a protracted period, (i.e. over a number of days) and that, of course, is one of the limitations, you need the sunlight.”
Mr. Gunning tells JIS News, that the harnessing of solar energy has been in effect for over 20 years. “We have only been harnessing it for maybe around 20 years in Jamaica. But before that, people certainly used the sun’s heat for drying…[items], such as pimento and rice. They have [also] been using it for sterilisation. A lot of the sterilisers are UV sensors…and it is very effective in terms of sterilisation,” he says.
The Computing and Engineering Entrepreneurial Centre Director, highlights that the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ), has been pioneering its usage, and as such “they have installed a wind plant…and there are other forms of renewable energy like hydro” noting that in terms of the solar, that it is only within the last 15 years that the thrust has escalated regarding the usage of photovoltaic.
This measure, Mr. Gunning states, has been undertaken more stringently due to the rising cost of crude oil on the world market.
He further adds that, whilst there are some incentives that are provided by the Government, other measures need to be undertaken in an effort to increase its usage in the country. He pointed out that “the Government, especially through the National Housing Trust (NHT), currently provides low interest loans, and has also removed the duty and General Consumption Tax (GCT), from solar equipment. So there is no duty or GCT on solar equipment.”
Mr. Gunning is adamant that there are more incentives that can be established, in an effort to encourage individuals to invest on a larger scale. These include: tax credits, net-metering, ensuring that converters are of the highest qualities, and ensuring that the building code is enforced.
“A lot of countries, when the developers are putting up new buildings, the roofs have to be designed in a certain way to accommodate photovoltaic panels. In fact, in some places, the roofs and windows are made of photovoltaic panels, which are part of the legislation,” he says, adding that this approach should be undertaken in Jamaica.
“Certainly these are things that have to be looked at, because it is another way of encouraging people to buy into and invest in solar energy,” Mr. Gunning posits.
He discloses, however, that one of the limitations, as it relates to solar, is that “the capital outlay is huge, and if you are talking about something like photovoltaic, which has a payback of, maybe, 20 years, even though it has been coming down due to cheaper and better ways to manufacture the photovoltaic cells, it has not come down sufficiently to make the payback something like five years.”
Mr. Gunning underscores that the quantity of energy available is really more than what the country can utilise. “Outside of the fact that you are saving on the fuel is also a much cleaner type of generating power, there is no emission, [that is] greenhouse gases emissions,” he says.
He adds that a lot of countries, particularly the industrialised countries, are forced to go with alternative and sustainable energy routes, because they have already exceeded their quotas of green house gases emissions.
“Jamaica is not an industrialised nation, so we are not there as yet. But they (the industrialised nations) are forced to reduce their emissions, in addition to the fact that they are trying to reduce their dependence on fossil fuel…,” he tells JIS News.
“…Our main problem is really the fuel bill and our dependence on fossil fuel. So we can do a lot more through education and encouraging Jamaicans to use solar energy, it’s there it’s free,” Mr. Gunning points out.
Meanwhile, Senior Director for Energy, in the Ministry of Energy, Conroy Watson, states that whilst solar energy will not eliminate the country’s dependence on fossil fuel, “.we can get about 30 to 35 per cent of our energy coming from it, if we fully develop our potential.”
He explains that external assistance has been established, as it relates to the solar energy platform, pointing out that help has been received from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Latin America Energy Organisation. The Senior Director adds that discussions are on-going with the World Bank and the Inter-America Development Bank (IDB).
Mr. Watson says that Government institutions are at the forefront with regards to implementation of solar infrastructure to power operations.
He tells JIS News, that “there is a policy that all water heaters must come from solar, and that is something that has already been approved by Cabinet. So it is a matter of getting enough resources to invest and making it a reality.”
“We are very blessed in terms of when you look at the colder countries up north. We have a lot more solar exposure than them, and they make greater use of solar energy. We should take a leaf from their book,” Mr. Watson states.