The French term déjà vu means: “something tediously familiar or already seen” and so it is with the current energy scene. For this energy researcher the first encounter was the early 1980s, where a then doubling of crude oil price as a direct consequence of the Iranian Revolution, spawned recession in the so-called advanced economies.
Amidst the consternation was the call for energy security and self-sufficiency, realizable through the development and deployment of alternative and renewable energy technologies. As a young university student in the USA I was in the right place at the right time as huge endowment monies flooded universities’ science and engineering programs to catalyze the development of the knowledge base of the new disciplines of ‘Energy Sciences and Engineering’.
It was in this period that the secrets of energy was reveled to a small cohort of students who could make sense of the arcane abstract languages of advanced mathematics and modern physics taught as tools of the trade. I no longer saw energy as that which was derived from a barrel of crude oil but literally the fundamental constituent of the universe and our planet. Hence all countries are endowed, provided of course the skilled people are in place to exploit the ubiquitous energy!
It was there and then that I learned of and about ocean thermal energy conversion; solar thermal energy conversion; solar photovoltaic; wave energy converters; wind energy converters; biomass energy conversion technologies etc and such and so forth. It was an exhilarating intellectual adventure that to this day some 25+ years hence my enthusiasm has not waned.
I recall however that the science and engineering types (nerds as we were called) were mandated to take a course entitled ‘Engineering Economics’, wherein we learnt that our vaunted discipline stood always on the backstage of the world stage waiting for our cue from the ever powerful director named, ‘Economics’. You see it is not ultimately the scientific merits that determine the deployment of a technology but rather the prevailing economic climate and financial variables.
By the mid 1980s the then high oil prices precipitated world recession which in turn collapsed the oil price and all the abovementioned technologies became high priced curiosities relegated to the backstage once again as the world went on a orgy of consuming the now cheap oil.
Fast forward to 2008; a world recession has collapsed oil prices and likewise all the technologies that one has heard so much recent opining about e.g. photovoltaic(solar panels),wind turbines,E10 & E85 ethanol, compressed natural gas etc, almost all have been rendered financially non viable at our current oil prices of approx. US$40 per barrel.
Déjà vu!! Already the new orgy has begun here in Jamaica! Note the Energy Minister beaming with glee on television that the demand for E10 has outstripped supplies, without revealing that a undeclared government subsidy and the lower energy content of a tank-full of cheap E10 versus regular gasoline is the cause for ‘dem no ave han fi sell de E10’.
But just as crude oil prices did recover then so will it again and I urge Jamaican decision makers to be ever circumspect in the crafting of policies. In this regards recall above that I mentioned that almost but not all technologies become non viable in a relatively cheap crude oil market. One technology that I would like to highlight that is always viable and worthwhile to deploy is “energy efficiency and energy conservation”.
Having worked in Jamaican industry and having tried my hand as a consultant I am intimately aware that Jamaican industry comprising large and small manufacturers, processors, mineral extractors and refiners are grossly inefficient in energy production and usage. Whether it is the PetroJam refinery or Windalco plant or the Sugar Corp. of Jamaica, it is the same.
Secondly, the rules of energy efficiency improvements direct one to do the obvious; “pick the lower hanging fruits first”. One such that goes unpicked in Jamaica and representing millions of dollars in wasted spent capital is due to the adherence to an outmoded maintenance philosophy called preventative maintenance. As counterintuitive as it sounds this researcher affirms that the conventional wisdom of dismantling machinery to replace parts that may go bad to prevent breakdowns accomplishes the opposite at a very high cost. The correct approach but yet to gain currency in Jamaica is predictive maintenance or ‘just in time’ maintenance. Government ought to, as precondition for the loans from the stimulus package funds, demand the implementation of this modern practice.
Thirdly, while it may seem worthwhile to inform Jamaicans in a popular jingle to “turn it off, plug it out”, a much more potent means of ensuring energy conservation is warranted to maximize our efforts. I have in the past advocated and herein do again call for a selective import duty to be applied to all consumer durable goods and machinery. In this regards a higher duty (i.e. punitive) be assigned to low energy efficiency rated items and less to high efficiency rated imports whatever they may be, from a kettle to the most complex plant equipment, to ensure that cheaply acquired but costly to operate products are discouraged.
Finally, I call again on policy makers to present to the nation a coherent energy policy. Our nation deserves this. Notwithstanding that the receding crude oil prices have given us as a nation some respite, the opportunities to use a modernized energy sector as an engine for national economic development is crystal clear to those who truly know energy yet seemingly opaque to our decision makers. Why! We should not divest our sugar assets but seek joint venture partners to modernize it to produce from the 200 high value chemicals realizable from sugar at least a half a dozen or so.
We should build an energyplex in southern Manchester to produce desalinated water, electric power (salinity gradient solar thermal and osmotic energy), nitrogenous fertilizer and brine shrimp aquaculture in integrated facilities exploiting the enormous energy endowment of the area namely: wind, solar, biomass and osmotic energies. Rather than touting E85 ethanol blended gasoline, which only but a handful of the 400,000+ vehicle on the Jamaican roads can use, we should be producing at the PetroJam refinery ED15 (15 per cent ethanol / 85 per cent diesel fuel) to provide a cheaper working fuel for our passenger buses, farm machinery and commercial transport and delivery vehicles.
Notwithstanding the popularity of importing wet ethanol from Brazil we must begin the large scale production, island-wide, of Irish potatoes to be used for the production of ethanol, bioplastics and biodegradable packaging materials. And we must begin the training of the workers needed for the development of a 21st century energy sector, so much so, that we will be better prepared for the inevitable return of a high oil price regime, where you also will say, déjà vu only with less trepidation!
Metaphorically speaking, the energy sectors is like a star-apple tree, called the mean tree by the wise country people of the hills of Manchester. For no matter how ripe a star-apple is, it just does not fall from the tree. It will literally rot there on the tree. So are the fruits of the energy sector. We must actively strive to pick the fruits rather than waiting passively for them to fall into our outstretched hands. The wisdom of the people of Manchester, energy science and the parable of the star-apple are my gifts to the nation for 2009. A prosperous new year to all.
aka Trevor Bogle