Winds of Change for Jamaican Renewable Energy

Jamaica is no stranger to wind.  Warm northeasterly trade winds bring fresh air onshore during the day while a more subtle offshore wind takes over at night.  Jamaicans refer to these predominant winds as the doctor breeze and the undertaker breeze, respectively.  Jamaican Rastafari dub poet Mutabaruka writes:

I hear the wind callin’
Who will come with me
The tides are a changin’
The world needs re-arrangin’

While Mutabaruka is probably referring to social, economic and political change, his words also apply to the winds of change sweeping Jamaica’s electricity sector.

Jamaica, like all small island developing states in the Caribbean, faces unique challenges associated with the generation and use of electricity.  The historical lack of fuel source diversity and dependence on imported oil for electricity generation subjects Jamaica to market price risk.  Jamaica is also keenly aware of the potential impacts of climate change such as sea level rise and the strength and frequency of tropical storms.  This combination of cost control and climate concerns is driving Jamaica to move to renewable fuel sources for its electric generation needs.

Energy Sector Overview

Jamaica Public Service (JPS) is the sole distributor of electricity on the island serving a population of 2.7 million with over 600,000 points of delivery.  Heavy fuel oil and diesel-fired steam plants constitute the bulk of the installed generation capacity.  Additional generation resources include gas turbines, combined cycle gas turbines, diesel, hydro, wind, solar, and biomass.  Liberalization of generation took place in 2004 opening the door for independent power producers (IPPs) to sell power to JPS.  In 2014, IPPs accounted for 40 percent of the island’s total net generation

Annual electricity sales from 2010 to 2014 across all customer classes averaged 3112 GWh.  Residential sales accounted for roughly one-third of the usage during that period.  The influence of oil price volatility is especially evident in residential electric service rates.  The average residential rate in 2014 was US$0.357/kWh representing a 50 percent increase over rates in 2010.  Subsequently, the fuel cost and IPP portion of the rate decreased by 37 percent from November 2014 to April 2015 consistent with the dramatic decrease in global oil prices.

While current oil price levels have resulted in lower electricity prices, Jamaica is not delaying its initiatives on fuel diversification and increasing renewable generation capacity.  Constructing LNG terminals and converting base load generation from fuel oil to natural gas is an essential component to reducing and stabilizing electricity rates.  Renewable generation is also key to Jamaica’s long-term sustainable energy strategy.

Regional and National Policies

In 2013, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Council for Trade and Economic Development approved a regional energy policy.  The CARICOM Energy Policy (CEP) has a key theme of increasing energy security, sustainability, and affordability through diversification of energy sources and demand management.  Specific strategies in the CEP include increasing the use of clean and renewable energy, mitigating climate change, and incorporating environmental sustainability into policy, planning, and public awareness.

In addition to the CARICOM Energy Policy, Jamaica has a National Energy Policy addressing its vision and goals for 2009-2030.  The focal points of the policy are diversification of fuels, development of renewables, energy conservation and efficiency, modernization of infrastructure, and developing a comprehensive governance/regulatory framework.  Supporting the policy are sub-policies for renewables, conservation and efficiency, biofuels, carbon credit trading and energy-from-waste.

The National Energy Policy set a goal for 20 percent of electricity sales from renewable energy sources by 2030.  As this goal is likely to be surpassed, there has been discussion by the government of increasing the policy goal to 30 percent. 

Utility-Scale Renewable Generation

Large-scale renewable energy generation in Jamaica consists primarily of wind and hydropower.  Government-held Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica owns Wigton Windfarm, which was the first utility-scale wind generation plant in Jamaica.  Wigton I has an installed capacity of 20.7 MW while Wigton II is an 18 MW facility.  Located in Manchester, Wigton I and II currently produce 97,000 MWh annually resulting in 45,954 metric tons of avoided carbon dioxide emissions.

JPS has ten hydroelectric plants with an installed capacity of 29 MW.  JPS recently added a 6.3 MW hydroelectric plant in Maggoty, St. Elizabeth.  Prior to the addition of this plant, JPS hydroelectric plants produced 160,000 MWh offsetting 112,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.  JPS also operates a 3 MW windfarm in Munro, St. Elizabeth.

In late 2012, the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) issued an RFP for 115 MW of renewable electricity generation capacity.  OUR ultimately issued licenses to three projects representing 78 MW of capacity.  Blue Mountain Renewables, Wigton Windfarm, and WRB Enterprises/Content Solar each signed a 20-year power purchase agreement with JPS.  

The Blue Mountain Renewables wind project is 34 MW and is located in St. Elizabeth.  The Wigton III wind project in South Manchester is 24 MW.  Groundbreaking on both of these projects took place in February 2015.  The WRB 20 MW solar project is located in Clarendon with groundbreaking anticipated in mid-2015.

Distributed Renewable Generation

JPS initiated a standard offer pilot program for renewable distributed generation in May 2012.  The program was available for residential projects up to 10 kW and commercial projects up to 100 kW.  This operates as a net billing program and pays enrollees 115 percent of the short-run avoided cost of generation offset by their renewable generation.  The enrollment period was extended by a year to May 1, 2015 as it fell short of its 12.8 MW penetration goal.  As of February 2015, the OUR had issued over 290 licenses representing approximately 3 MW of distributed renewable generation.  The results of the pilot program are currently under review.

Photovoltaic projects have been favored as the decreasing cost in solar panel costs and high retail electric rates result in attractive payback periods.  The Grand Palladium Resort in Hanover completed installation of a 1.6MW photovoltaic array in June 2014. 

Another example of distributed renewable energy is the alliance between JPS and WindStream Technologies.  Windstream’s SolarMill is a renewable energy generation system combining photovoltaic panels and vertical axis wind turbines.  Two commercial rooftop installations in downtown Kingston are operational.  The largest, with a capacity of 80 kW, should generate 110 MWh per year with a payback period just under four years.

Moving Forward

While Jamaica’s fuel diversification and renewable energy efforts are on the right track, there are challenges to realizing the full potential of these initiatives.  One of the impediments to progress has been the lack of a clear and consistent approach to managing energy.  Jamaica’s National Energy Policy is only in its sixth year and the programs and legal framework associated with the policy are still evolving.

Sustainable energy development is dependent on investment and financing.  Promising capital sources for Jamaican renewable energy generation include government-sponsored sources like the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation and private investment such as the recently formed Caribbean Energy Finance Company Limited.  Attracting investors, however, requires a stable, fair, and transparent legal and regulatory environment.

In May 2015, the Jamaican Parliament is expected to pass a comprehensive bill reforming the island’s electricity sector.  The Electricity Act, 2015, makes significant improvements in defining the role of the OUR and clarifying ministerial authority and responsibility.  The bill also addresses net billing and wheeling, both of which are essential to continued renewable energy development.  With a comprehensive national energy policy and new statutes and regulations, Jamaica could well exceed its renewable energy goals.

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Charlie Hewitt has more than 20 years of in-depth energy experience having served in executive and managerial roles at some of the largest retail energy providers in North America. He holds advanced degrees in business and geology and was a TXU environmental research fellow. He founded ElectricityMatch as to assist consumers with choosing retail electric providers and plans.

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