Wigton Wind Farm: Jamaica’s Commitment to Renewable energy Starts Paying Off

This blog post was originally published at Worldwatch Institute.

As previously reported, members of Worldwatch’s Climate and Energy team made the first country visit to Jamaica as part of the institute’s Caribbean Low-Carbon Roadmap work. During that visit I had the opportunity to visit Wigton Wind Farm, the island’s largest grid-tied, utility-scale wind power facility. Situated on the southern tip of the Don Figuerero Mountains, not far from the southern coastal town of Alligator Pond, the wind farm offers good lessons for successful promotion of renewable energy in Jamaica and how such projects are in the country’s best interests. But it has also shined a light on obstacles that should be resolved as the country pursues more renewable energy projects.

The entrance at Wigton Wind Farm in Manchester, Jamaica.
The entrance at Wigton Wind Farm in Manchester, Jamaica.

Wigton Wind Farm is actually composed of two separate projects, one built in 2004 and the other in 2010. The first phase – or Wigton I as it is referred to – comprises 23 NEG-Micon 900/52 turbines, each with an installed capacity of 900 kilowatts (kW). The second phase, Wigton II, consists of 9 Vestas V80 turbines, each with an installed capacity of 2 megawatts (MW). Their respective capacity factors are 35 percent and 33 percent, which means together they generate around 115 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity per year. In total the wind farm is expected to offset 60,000 barrels of oil per year and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 85,000 tons.

Wigton Wind Farm is a subsidiary of the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ), a state energy corporation housed within Jamaica’s Ministry of Energy and Mining. Dr. Raymond Wright, a former managing group director at PCJ, became Wigton’s first strong supporter in the late 90’s. When construction started in 2004, PCJ was fortunate in securing a good location for the project. Much of the land on which the wind farm is sited is owned by Alcoa, which is the managing partner of Jamalco, a partnership between the Jamaican government and Alcoa Minerals of Jamaica. There is still enough land to build a possible third phase of Wigton just to the north of the first two project locations. This remaining land also happens to be located in an area that, according to studies, is a strong wind resource. A quick look at 3TIER Inc.’s Dashboard tool shows that the area has an annual mean wind speed around 8 meters per second (m/s).

The Wigton project has also experienced some challenges, especially with regard to finance, technical issues, and logistics. Wigton I was originally financed partially with an Oret Miliev Grant from the Netherlands, partially with equity from the Petroleum Company of Jamaica (PCJ), as well as with debt financing through the National Commercial Bank of Jamaica (NCB) that would be serviced with revenue from the sale of wind-generated electricity. By law, independent power producers must sell any surplus electricity to Jamaica Public Service Co. (JPS), the country’s sole provider of electricity transmission and distribution. In December 2001, an agreement was signed stipulating that JPS would purchase wind-generated electricity at a price of USD $0.05 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). This price, known as the “avoided cost,” represents the long-term incremental cost of capital, operation & maintenance, fuel, and depreciation. This figure was calculated by the Office of Utility Regulation (OUR), but did so using the 1999 average price of USD $16.50 per barrel. By the time Wigton Wind Farm was operational in 2004, that price had nearly doubled, making the off-take price inadequate to meet the wind farm’s financial obligations.

When Wigton was expanded in 2010, funding came again through NCB, but the money was actually from a fund connected with the Jamaica’s PetroCaribe agreement with Venezuela. The special arrangement of monies in this fund meant that the traditional interest rate of 11 percent could be reduced to 6 percent. Additionally, the off-take price was negotiated such that the initial price was around USD $0.14 per kWh, and would be reduced over time resulting in an average price of USD $0.10 per kWh over the lifetime of the payback period.This resulted in the entire operation becoming profitable. In fact, new estimates are showing that after one full year of operations following Wigton II’s commissioning, the wind farm may see net profits around US $240 million. Original estimates were just over US $180 million.

Aside from financial difficulty, Wigton Wind Farm has also experienced technical challenges, mainly with grid reliability. The day before I visited, the area had experienced a severe thunderstorm. Lightning had caused a power surge that damaged the on-site substation. All of the turbines of Wigton I were turned off while it was repaired. The turbines of Wigton II, however, are connected to uninterrupted power supplies (UPS) – large batteries that can mitigate such disturbances – and were therefore operational.

Finally, Wigton also experienced logistical difficulties related to Jamaica’s roads as they can only accommodate loads of certain sizes. The towers were relatively easy to transport because they could be delivered in pieces. However, the nassels were brought in through a carefully orchestrated process that involved closing down certain sections of main roads in towns where the roads were especially windy. The transportation of parts also required the construction of a special road that turned off from a main highway and connected to a road used exclusively by bauxite companies for hauling mined ore. This “road load” restriction means that the turbines used for Wigton II are the largest the country can import. Should bigger and better turbines come into play in the future, Jamaica might be unable to utilize them.

Overall, Wigton Wind Farm has faced a great deal of challenges but has nonetheless been quite a technical success. In fewer than ten years, 40 MW of wind power have been brought onto the grid and the project is starting to see healthy profit. Both are notable. The first commercial wind generator installed on the island was a Vestas 225 kW turbine. It was installed at Munro College in the parish of St. Elizabeth in 1996. In 2010, JPS installed 4 Unison turbines, each with an installed capacity of 750 kW in Malvern, St. Elizabeth. Projects like these are what will help move Jamaica towards realizing the renewable energy goals set by the Ministry of Energy and Mining (MEM). However, considering Jamaica has more than 800 MW of installed generating capacity, the goal MEM established in the 2009 energy policy – 20 percent of the country’s energy coming from renewable sources by 2030 – is still a long way from being realized.