Roughly thirteen years after Thomas Edison invented the world’s first electric lamp, in the year 1892 Jamaica received electricity for the first time. At that time it was the Jamaica Electric Light Company, which later became the Jamaica Light and Power Company Limited that was powering this electric transformation through a steam and coal plant in downtown Kingston. The company soon received competition from The West Indian Light Company which opened a hydro plant which it used to power several communities, as well as its electric tramcars.
Both electric companies eventually merged, and three decades later became known as the Jamaica Public Service (JPS). This electrical shift happened as early as the 1800s when some major British cities still weren’t powered, greatly altering the Jamaican way of life. The result of that in this 21st century is a Jamaica that is utterly dependent on electricity, through JPS’ primary means of generation, fossil fuel.
Energy security, ironically, is a huge dilemma for our tropical island. Despite the abundance of sunlight, we struggle to balance life as the country continues to grow and develop, creating more demands. The stress or emphasis on energy as a utility for modern life in Jamaica is underscored by the many sectors of society that depend on it. From electricity, which affects other things like food security, to things like education and transportation.
Though Jamaica no longer uses electric tramcars, fossil fuel still powers the majority of our transportation in the form of petrol. Shortage or complete lack of energy, which is frequent during unfavorable weather can truly cripple the country in several complicated and detrimental ways. Currently, the generation of electricity in Jamaica comes from 90% petroleum and 10% renewable energy in the form of hydro and wind energy. In contrast to countries like Sweden with 50%, or Costa Rica with a whopping 98% of their generation coming from renewable energy, Jamaica’s transition has been very slow.
In the 2009 energy policy aimed at meeting the Paris Agreement, the local government vowed to increase the generation of renewable energy from 10% to 20% by 2030. But why exactly is the transition so important and at the same time difficult for countries like Jamaica? On the ground level, people struggle a great deal due to things like increased temperatures, extreme weather, and especially during the aftermaths of storms or hurricanes, with recovering power. Hurricanes Gilbert and Ivan not only displaced many but deprived many communities of this essential amenity for months going on a year.
For developed nations, the recovery process will look a lot different, especially in the temporal sense. Recovery for developing countries in vulnerable regions like the Caribbean looks like two months outside the hurricane event and still no electricity in several hospitals and schools throughout the island. This doesn’t even include the individual households that might go actual years before they can power their own refrigerator again post storms. These storms not only destroy the infrastructure that generates and transports the electricity, but it also most unfortunately destroys the roads. This is a particularly lethal issue that has the potential to compound many others. It simply means that before JPS can even begin restoring electricity, the roads must first be repaired by the National Works Agency (NWA).
With a workforce that is already stretched thin, often these road repair projects and energy-restoring requests fall into a long queue of its kind. “We face a lot of challenges in providing light, due to climate change. The main thing they will tell you at JPS is that the extreme temperature really affects the lines. So the extreme heat and then sudden rains often cause the transformers to explode and disrupt power.” says Leon Anderson, a contractor at the Jamaica Public Service when we share a brief conversation about the impact of the changing climate on the company.
“The other thing is that in the aftermath of a hurricane or storm, even though the company is not making money because the lines are in disrepair, we still spend a lot to send our contractors out to fix the lines. Oftentimes, it is at the risk of these contractors because even though the storms might have passed, it’s still the wet season so there is likely to be rain. Light and water are a bad mix.” The issue of energy, high electricity bills and all these other frustrations is not a company issue with JPS, it’s a functionality issue with fossil energy. During storms and hurricanes, the electricity and water companies will likely shut off supplies to avoid intensive damage to their hardware or infrastructure. Loss and damage is still inevitable, largely because the change in the climate is constant.
Where once electrical lines would be able to withstand the weather and its temperatures, this constant rise in heat is disrupting that certainty. “There’s a lot more engineering to it than people think. When we light a building or a post, we calculate a certain amount of temperature that the wires will give off and that the environment gives off. We run according to that because when the wires become too hot they expand and sometimes break, which causes a lot of accidents.” says Rushane Williams an independent electrical contractor.
Fossil fuel-powered electricity does not pair well with the symptoms of changing climate in our region. “All energy has their drawbacks because even with solar power, the batteries sometimes become an issue because they are toxic.” The young technician makes a salient point. Although there are non-toxic solar batteries we can now use to replace the toxic ones the sentiment still stands; all energy has cons as much as they have pros.
Though to be fair, the ways in which fossil fuel-based energy interacts with the effects of climate change in our tropical region are worryingly unstable as evidenced in a report done by the University Of The West Indies’ Dr Randy Koon Koon, along with others such as Dr Anthony Chen. The research titled Pathways to climate change mitigation and stable energy by 100% renewable for a small island: Jamaica as an example details the essential conflict between a country like our own sitting in the womb of storms, and its toxic dependence on fossil fuel based energy.
This story was originally published by Backayard Magazine with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture of Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.