How solar power can boost Jamaica’s school budgets

With the price of solar energy falling, it is becoming increasingly spurious to claim it as a green luxury as its benefits of energy independence and security become ever more accessible to those in developing nations. Dr John Lennon, founder of Let’s Build A Better Jamaica, calculates that switching to solar energy could save schools currently spending 50 per cent of their budget on electricity thousands of dollars, though political obstacles remain.

Jamaica
Jamaica

A view from the hills in Kingston, Jamaica.

Dr John Lennon
Mon 11 Feb 2019

The UN recently tweeted that the Sustainable Development Goals will need 5-7 trillion US dollars (USD) annually and UNESCO estimates an additional USD39 billion is needed to provide quality education, the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG4). USD39 billion is needed because in many countries taxpayers’ money allocated to education is mismanaged.

That certainly is the case in Jamaica where tens of millions of USD are lost every year. Our schools are broke. Some have experienced disconnection from the grid and education relies on fees and charity. As a result education is tiered and, for the majority, substandard.

However, it is possible to significantly improve school financing by taking them off the grid, so money spent on fossil fuel generated electricity would be redirected to education. Governments must pay to power schools so should it prudently. Instead of using taxpayers money to indefinitely pay electricity bills, schools should service fixed-term loan agreements – with repayments lower than bills – to pay for their own electricity generating facilities. Schools would immediately have increased budgets and the fossil fuels would remain underground.

The power of numbers

Jamaican parliamentarians have created the belief that solar power is an expensive green luxury that "we cannot afford". However, economics dispels this myth and shows the opposite: it is foolish not to invest.

Our electricity is one of the most expensive in the world. I have an estimate for a 201-kilowatt (kW) solar facility at a college with a payback period of four years: monthly bills averaged USD10,000 and the estimate was USD475,000.

If the college had a loan agreement of 20 per cent over 10 years its monthly repayments would be USD4,750 (USD475,000 x 1.2/120 months). Today, that agreement would make the college around USD5,000 better off (USD10,000 - USD4,750) per month.

Ardenne High School recently acquired partial solar power and estimates payback figures under a year. Their monthly USD32,000 bills have been reduced by 30 per cent, though they are now struggling to raise USD200,000 to take the school completely off the grid.

According to Ardenne a total investment of USD320,000 would save them USD32,000 per month.

An extortionate 100 per cent interest loan repaid over two years has repayments under USD17,000 (USD400,000/24 months). Today, that agreement would make Ardenne over USD5,000 better off (0.7 x USD32,000 - USD17,000). From the end of the first month many schools would have thousands of USD to spend on education, but all our schools are on the grid.

Queries and complaints have gone unanswered by the Minister of Education and his Ministry. I contacted the Ministry responsible for Freedom of Information to get a sample of bills but failed. However, from what I've heard, bills exceeding JMD1 million (USD8,000) per month are commonplace .

Education designed for failure

The high school budget for the 2018-19 academic year is a paltry JMD8.39 billion (USD65 million). We have around 325 high schools. If average bills are USD100,000 per annum then 50 per cent of the budget will be spent on electricity. There are over 1,000 other educational institutions on the grid. This is not only unsustainable financial lunacy, it is an evil policy that exacerbates poverty.

There is no solar solution in Jamaica’s report submitted to the UN in July. Why? Nor was there a funding solution. Governments, especially those of poor nations, should not ignore free energy sources to power schools. Why isn't that a UN requirement?

So, is it affordable?

We could utilise the more than USD3 billion of taxpayers’ money in the Net International Reserves. The IMF Mission Chief Uma Ramkrishnan recently said that Jamaica can now draw down on USD226 million if needed under the present cycle for a total available credit of USD1.2 billion. Use that – it can be justified, Ms Lagarde.

Borrowing should not be an issue. Schools miss payments and suffer disconnections because of the size of the bills. They would not renege on significantly smaller loan repayments. Options could include:

  • Using the recently-received USD248 million World Bank loan and postpone the unsanctioned projects that will be paid for with more austerity.

  • Funding from the World Bank, the International Development Bank (IDB) and the International Renewable Energy Association (IRENA). The WB Twitter account logo reads ‘End Poverty’ with a 'mission' to ‘... fight poverty with passion and professionalism for lasting results’, so this should be a perfect fit. IRENA has 20-year loans at very low interest rates for renewable projects.

  • An arrangement for schools to borrow government-backed loans from national banks. Smaller fixed-term loan repayments would replace indefinite astronomical electricity bills. A more prosperous country is good business for banks.

  • Create green educational bonds: 10-year 10 per cent fixed income SDG4 bonds backed by the treasury. Investors are divesting from fossil fuel so environmental educational bonds would be excellent ethical alternatives. The diaspora and pension funds would be excellent markets.

The parliamentarians have known about the viability of solar power for years but allocated a paltry USD925,000 from the 2018-19 national budget to taking schools off the grid. However, in the ‘limited fiscal space’ the governor general was allocated almost twice as much for a car and elevator, MPs were given USD1.5 million for cars, it is estimated that a new parliament building will cost USD16 million and USD500,000 went into upgrading a press room.

Impacts on the SDGs

This gem is from Jamaica’s report on progress towards the SDGs submitted to the UN: ‘The main challenge for Jamaica is implementing policies that will trigger fast and sustained progress towards the goals in a context of limited fiscal space.’

A state-owned solar powered schools policy would ‘trigger fast and sustained progress towards the goals’. It could lead to:

  • Free secondary school education so more money remains in parents’ pockets, meaning less stress and more opportunity to increase livelihoods;

  • No energy bills for schools meaning more money available for IT equipment, security, transportation, meal programs, infrastructure and better education;

  • The possibility of expansion, supplying energy to the grid and generating revenue; and

  • Keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

Conclusion

Countries like Jamaica will always struggle when parliamentarians and the traditional press remain eager bedfellows– there are more chickens with teeth than investigative journalists. The poor get their news with their ears and the viability of renewables and solar school stories are not reported over the airwaves. The people are kept ignorant.  

Prudence with taxpayers’ money is not a bad thing. The fact is, governments are using what is killing the children's planet to power classrooms. To add insult to injury, the quality of education suffers because money allocated to educate is used to pay for this. Even climate change deniers want better education, accountability and prudence with taxpayers’ money, so solar-powered schools should be popular.

The Jamaican Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, said the following about the SDGs: “Jamaica is naturally and irrevocably aligned to the SDGs and at every opportunity we reaffirm our commitment to achieving them.” Let’s see if his words translate into actions.

Dr John Lennon PhD read Chemistry at UCL and lives in Montego Bay, Jamaica. He set up Let’s Build A Better Jamaica, which aims to achieve budget savings for education on the island through the use of renewable energy and energy-from-waste projects. You can read more about his work on the Let’s Build A Better Jamaica website.