Solar energy conversion machine, invented by Douglas 'Helicopter' George. - Photo by Ross Sheil
Solar energy has taken a long time to gain popularity in Jamaica.
At last count. there were just 7,000 units on the island.
But recently, in the form of solar water heaters (SWH), interest has grown. SWHs are also zero-rated for GCT and import duties as part of Government policy to encourage renewable energy.
The Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ) has just launched its latest awareness campaign featuring a mascot, 'Solar Man', targeting children, rather than adults whose indifference has frustrated past efforts.
Still a hobby
Currently, photovoltaic (PV) units, which convert sunlight into electricity, are expensive. They remain the reserve of the hobbyist who wants to be independent from the national grid and free from light bills. Or maybe that person just cares about the damage caused by burning imported oil to foreign-exchange earnings and the environment.
Making your house PV-self-sufficient could cost around $1 million, said Richard Osborne, support engineer for the Automatic Control Engineering company based in Mandeville. But even with these costs, he says, there has been increasing interest.
"They call all the time, I wouldn't say more business, but more enquiries," said Mr. Osborne.
Mr. Osbourne said SWHs are doing a much better trade, buoyed by loan packages offered by the National Housing Trust (NHT) and credit unions.
Assuming that you are using electricity to heat your water, you could save up to two thirds on your light bill.
He believes payback times are estimated at between two to three years. The NHT loan, with an available $100,000 repayable within five years, makes sound economic sense.
Public embracing solar
The NHT has now approved 107 such loans, including one to Guy Wiltshire from Baillieston district in Clarendon.
Mr. Wiltshire had just constructed a new housing unit for his family of four and, when looking to buy an electric water heater, went to his friend's hardware store.
Instead, the friend advised him to apply for the NHT loan and last month had a unit installed.
"One thing I can say is that we are enjoying it. It is working perfectly well and the company that installed the unit was very efficient. So far, it's beautiful," he said.
But for Mikael Oerbekke, president of the Jamaica Solar Energy Association and owner of Bluefields, Westmoreland-based Eco-Tec, those 107 loans are far from beautiful. He acknowledged, however, that more suppliers were entering the market.
More incentives needed
He said that, for PV to really take off, heavy tax incentives offered in countries like Barbados, Germany and the United States would be needed. Additionally, the current net-billing arrangement would need to be converted to net metering - JPS would pay the same rate that they charge unlike the lower rate currently offered.
There may be no bigger fillip for the industry than the draft national building code under which it is proposed that SWH units be mandatory. Some developers have pre-empted that.
Most notably, New Era Homes has installed units on all 950 houses at its Caribbean Estates development in Portmore, St. Catherine.
As New Era told The Gleaner, the decision was part of its policy to lower post-occupancy costs.
Local industry developing
The solar energy industry is in its early stage in Jamaica.
The PCJ is in "advanced stages" of negotiation with one foreign manufacturer to establish a factory here.
Standing in the car park at the Scientific Research Council's Hope Gardens, St. Andrew, headquarters is a machine resembling something out of an old science-fiction film.
Belonging to young St. Mary-based inventor, George 'Helicopter' Douglas, the machine aims to use fewer panels to generate more electricity than more standard PV. He is, however, reluctant to divulge the technology behind it.
Currently, it produces 110 watts, sufficient to power a fridge or any appliance that uses less than one kilowatt in voltage.
Mr. Douglas' ultimate aim is to produce 100,000 watts, enough to provide power to 100 rural housing units. But to do this, he will need financial assistance to purchase an expensive current inverter.
Meanwhile Eco-Tec is also looking into a new, albeit proven technology, solar cooling, which uses solar panels and heat exchange as an alternative to conventional air conditioning. The company is negotiating over two projects, said Mr. Oerbekke.