JAMAICA continues to agonise over the cost of electricity and the capacity to pay for its oil imports. This agony started with the first oil price shock in 1973 and the degree of agony has varied with the ebb and flow of oil prices. The country is in the throes of trying to reduce the cost of electricity and the oil import bill.

Much attention is now being devoted to finalising the outcome of the bidding process for an additional 360-megawatt (MW) of electricity at the most competitive price. The Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) is being lambasted over its handling of the selection of the “best” bidder to undertake the construction of a 360MW-generating power plant to provide additional generating capacity to the national grid. The heightened anxiety is also due to the impending changes in the terms of PetroCaribe, an eventuality that should have been anticipated and prepared for.

Meanwhile, the productive sector continues to be stymied by the high cost of electricity and households are impoverished by their electricity bills. Jamaica has a very high price of electricity at 0.26 USD/kW h, which puts the economy at a substantial disadvantage in being internationally competitive. The cost of electricity has contributed to the deindustrialisation of the country, which is most evident in the manufacturing industry.

Jamaica has a peak daily demand of approximately 600 MW, which is provided through a number of steam and combustion gas turbine plants as well as a few small hydro plants. The Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) has been the main supplier until fairly recently. About 25 per cent of this generating capacity (197 MW) is supplied by non-JPS sources. JPS has an exclusive franchise on transmission, distribution and retail supply. Almost half the generation capacity is over 30 years old and transmission losses are estimated at 23 per cent.

The real problem is not the JPS, the OUR or rapacious oil-exporting countries. It is the absence of a national energy policy aimed at lowering the cost of electricity by a combination of less expensive alternatives to oil and an increased reliance on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

The cost of oil imports during the last 40 years has had little success in prompting the exploration of alternative energy solutions in Jamaica, unlike many other countries for example Germany where solar and wind account for 22 per cent of electricity generation. Wind and solar contributed an insignificant amount of our energy needs despite its potential. In 1995, the PCJ was mandated to develop indigenous renewable energy resources. The Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ) established a wholly-owned subsidiary, Wigton Wind Farm Limited (Wigton) in 2000. Wigton is the first commercial wind farm. Electricity purchase agreements allow Wigton to sell electricity to JPS. Solar sources have the potential to save on oil imports but not enough homes and business establishments have installed capacity. This is inexplicable because falling prices have made solar power competitive with conventional sources of energy. In the 1970s solar panels converted sunlight into electricity at a cost of US$70 a watt, but today that figure is less than 80 cents.

Jamaica’s energy crisis is an indisputable failure of successive governments of both political parties. The Jamaican people have paid a high price for this incompetence and mismanagement with little prospect for change for the better.