Coal-fired plants seem the way to go in Jamaica

 In an ideal world every adult individual would be a village environmentalist. But this is not so, not just out of ignorance but because, in an imperfect world, hard choices will have to be made.

If a poor man has a piece of hillside land and he wants to clear it for farming so that his woman and six children can survive, there is the likelihood that a crusading environmentalist living in an uptown, gated community may say to him, “I beg you, don’t do it. Half of the rainforest in the parish has already been destroyed, plus I have identified a special bird on the endangered species list that lives only on your land. Please don’t do it.”

In such a scenario I could empathise with the environmentalist, but I would also ask him to return to earth from whichever planet he is on. Of course, during my period of empathy, we would both hear the sound of chopping as Farmer Brown does what he has to do to survive.

Jamaica has grown used to expensive oil-fired electric power-generating plants and we have been paying the price for it – straight out of our severely depleted pockets. Now a decision has been made to go for coal instead of the expensive oil and, of course, the environmentalists are up in arms criticising the move.

One online commentator wrote recently, “The UK wind industry is celebrating a never-before-achieved four gigawatts of installed wind energy capacity, as the industry gathers for the UK’s biggest wind, wave and tidal energy conference in Liverpool. Wind energy now powers over 2.3 million homes in the UK – the equivalent of Scotland’s household supply – and saves six million tonnes of coal annually. As they say, ‘word is wind’, and in Jamaica we love words. Couldn’t we stop importing fuel for electricity?”

I recently contacted Mr Winston Hay who was once head of JPS and I asked him to comment on the decision to switch from the importation of heavy oil to coal in power generating. “The majority of Jamaica’s electricity consumers would not be able to afford electricity’s conveniences if it were to be generated from the renewables, which at the current status of the technological development would be restricted to solar and wind,” noted Haye.

He continued, “Realistically, Jamaica has three primary energy alternatives for commercial power generation at the current national levels of electricity demand and geographic coverage. They are oil, coal and natural gas.”

The main criticism from the environmentalists centre on the idea that there is no such thing as ‘clean coal’, which means that there will be carbon dioxide emissions, whether electrostatic precipitators or more technologically updated means are used to trap the solids left over.

Last Thursday, the BBC reported the prime minister of India as saying that the industrialised countries cannot reasonably expect developing countries to restrict their economic growth in order to protect the global environment which they (the developed countries) polluted. In other words, while the environmental mantra of less CO2 emission makes sense in highly developed countries, in countries like Jamaica, the change to coal-fired plants would of course add to the emission, but as a percentage it would be so infinitesimal to not matter.

It is foolish to expect small countries like Jamaica, whose leaders are fully aware of the connection between CO2 emissions and global warming, to adopt the same emerging ‘clean’ technologies as the developed ones when it was that very ‘dirty’ technology which gave them their industrial might.

Mr Hay stated that, “If the cost of electricity delivered to the consumer is not an important consideration in determining the choice of fuel to be used for power generation in Jamaica, then liquefied natural gas would be the logical selection. However, Jamaica is not in that enviable position, and the cost of the fuel must be a factor in fuel selection – otherwise the choice would be hydrogen, use of which would have minimal adverse environmental impact but would generate electricity at a cost affordable only by multimillionaires.

“The issue then becomes one of choosing a fuel which is relatively low in price and the adverse environmental impact of which can be controlled within acceptable limits. I think that that fuel is coal.”

Hard choices, but that is what makes this a tough world to live in.