[Editor’s Note: I initially wrote this article towards the latter part of 2007 for the Investor’s Choice magazine. Based on some recent pronouncements by political players (government and opposition) I decided to revisit these thoughts. I have also decided not to edit the original article, which would allow the reader to see how much has changed (if any at all) since pen was first put to paper almost four years ago.]
Rain, rain everywhere and not a drop to drink! The Bruce Golding administration now has its hands full with repairs necessitated by flooding and extensive damage to our road networks. Despite this, one can’t help but wonder how it is that Jamaica has continued to miss out on a flood of technological advancements for some decades now. I dare say, Cuban light bulbs aside, the most daunting challenge ahead for the Honourable Minister of Mining and Technology, Clive Mullings, will be bringing Jamaica on par with her developed counterparts in the areas of science and technology. Yet, there exist myriad options which can be used to leverage available technologies to improve our nation’s standing.
Globally, of major concern is the rising price and usage of oil, coupled with the attendant escalation in global warming. “Alternative Energy” is the new catch-phrase for start-up companies in the U.S. And Europe – if you’re planning to launch a venture, and you’re looking for capital injection, it had better be green! Green being “environmentally friendly” – I declare no political affiliations.
For a land that basks in hot sunshine 90% of the year (I know, you wouldn’t be able to tell based on the past few weeks) – and with no domestic source for petroleum – Jamaica should be leading the charge in harnessing and utilising solar energy. Much has been made of investments by Brazilian and local entities in ethanol producing facilities. However, the efficiency of ethanol production from cellulose based material has been debated for decades. More recently, a report by Cornell University professor David Pimentel, and Tad Patzek – an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkely – found that making ethanol from various plants and plant derivatives requires more fossil energy than the ethanol itself actually contains (READ MORE). In short, more energy is required to produce ethanol, than is actually derived from ethanol. Now it doesn’t take a math genius to determine that if you spend $1.30 to get $1.00 worth of goods, then you’ve been hoodwinked! Of course, there have been claims and counter-claims on this issue for decades. The point to be made, however, is that we must conduct our own due diligence before touting the benefits of (locally) untested technologies, meanwhile ensuring that such undertakings really do achieve the desired goals of reducing our “carbon footprint” and saving money. Brazil is currently the world’s largest producer of sugarcane and ethanol, and while we stand to benefit from their 31 years of experience in ethanol production, we must consider all alternative solutions, in addition to their socio-economic impact and the efficiency with which they will produce energy. And there are quite a few alternatives including, but certainly not limited to biodiesel, solar, wind energy (wither Wigton?), and Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV’s).
The issue of socio-economic impact is broached due to concerns raised by the United Nations’ World Food Programme and other food organisations, of a growing use of food stock for the production of alternative energy fuels. The price of corn, for example, has skyrocketed in the last few years, as ethanol production demands for the commodity continue to increase. Depending on the form it takes, biodiesel production also poses problems for agriculture (READ MORE) – but instead of utilising potential food crop, it demands the use of arable land to grow palms for palm oil, or any other crop used in the manufacture of biodiesel. Yet a rarely mentioned source of biodiesel exists in the copious amounts of recyclable cooking oil wasted daily by our fast food industries (and yes, even you and I). With an added bonus of addressing several issues simultaneously, recycling cooking oil provides a safe, clean method of disposal, maximizes the use of the commodity, and ultimately yields one of the best sources of biodiesel. It’s not at all farfetched to imagine a programme conducted by the Ministry in conjunction with the NSWMA to collect, on a weekly basis, used cooking oil from households and restaurants alike. Such a programme could complement/supplement biodiesel derived from palm oil, thereby obviating the need to allocate excessive land to the growth of palm. Worst case scenario: vehicle exhaust would have us smelling like mobile fast food shops.
And whatever has become of the Wigton Wind Farm? It seems, the answer is blowing in the wind. Initial reports had lauded the project – a first for Jamaica – and touted the plans for expansion. But little has been heard of the turbines since then, save and except for plans to unload to any willing buyer. [Editor’s Note: Wigton has since been upgraded from its 24MW capacity to 40MW.] The wind and sun provide perhaps the cleanest forms of energy available. While the initial outlay for equipment tends to be expensive, they pay for themselves quickly [Editor’s Note: Actually ROI takes quite a long time in many cases.], and have very long “shelf lives“. Wind turbines, of course, must be situated ideally to be useful and efficient, but solar panels can be placed just about anywhere the sun shines. One potential government strategy to avoid the use of valuable open spaces for a solar farm could be providing incentives for households in designated communities that would allow panels to be installed on (approved) rooftops. If the project was done in conjunction with the electrical utility, participating households could benefit from percentage discounts on their bills. The solar panels could be used to harvest converted energy, and added to the utility’s capacity.
A recent dust-up between the St. Catherine parish council and the operators of Highway 2000 could also potentially be settled with the use of solar powered street lights on the highway. I know what you’re thinking…solar at night??!! Lead-acid batteries (similar to those used in automobiles) can be used to store the electricity generated from the Photo-Voltaic process used by solar panels to create electricity. The posts would be fitted with solar panels and storage devices to facilitate nightly illumination. Finally, while alternatives abound, space for this column, unfortunately does not – so I conclude with mention of hybrid vehicles. Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV’s) and Plug-in HEV’s use a combination of the standard internal combustion engine, and electrical storage batteries. Unlike standard cars, however, they reduce emissions by decreasing the sole dependence on gasoline, and also by switching automatically to battery power in instances when the car doesn’t require the engine’s resources, such as while the vehicle idles. While their popularity has grown, their prices have come down significantly – a Toyota Prius, for example, retails for about the price of a Camry, yet costs you much less at the pumps!
LOCAL I.T. DEVELOPMENT
While energy conservation is a global issue, closer to home, education and the scourge of crime are more topical issues. No doubt, Mr. Mullings can seek to help his fellow ministers address both with the aid of scientific and technological advancements and equipment.
A previous Tech Smarts article made reference to the belief by some, that adding a few computers constitutes IT development – this however, is a fallacy. In the same vein, while it is commendable when government or private entities donate computers or build computer labs in schools, it does not fully resolve the needs of our educational institutions. There are many other facets of IT development in schools that need to be addressed.
- Appropriate training for teachers
- Data connectivity
- Promotion of online homework/study programmes
- Broadened curricula
The education ministry has done well to insist on higher standards of training and education for our teachers. Unfortunately, some still slip through the cracks, and resultantly we have individuals with IT degrees – but no teaching diplomas – instructing our young minds. In some worst case scenarios, the teachers in question have little or no formal training. The fact is, it isn’t nearly sufficient for an educator to have been trained in IT; they must also possess the skills required to convey this knowledge to students.
And after the computers have been purchased and installed, constant and reliable internet connectivity should be provided for ALL schools by the government, in conjunction with service providers. Is it fanciful thinking to believe that a FLOW or Cable & Wireless could be co-opted by the ministries to provide these services free or at drastically reduced rates? The government should throw in tax benefits if they have to, but a standalone computer serves little more than a means to feed the Spider Solitaire addiction. Offline data stores – such as encyclopaedia software and exam pass papers – are also highly recommended in the event that internet connections go down. Additionally, online homework and study programmes can assist parents who have connectivity at home or office, to keep abreast of children’s assignments and progress. Such programmes get parents more actively involved in the education and development of their children – proven to be of profound benefit in a child’s schooling.
A scan of advertising for many of the “Computer Courses” offered today will reveal a high percentage peddling Microsoft Office and Windows training. The same applies to the school curricula locally. Unfortunately, Microsoft has become synonymous with IT for many. We put our students at a great disadvantage (and indeed, do them a disservice) by not exposing them to the many available Operating Systems, Office Productivity Suites, and software and hardware technologies. The fact is industries as varied as engineering, entertainment and telecommunications, among others, use the UNIX and Linux operating systems as the platform for some of the most technologically advanced software. Teaching students that UNIX and Linux exist, but then educating them on (expensive) Windows machines only, will continually have them playing “catch-up” at the tertiary level and in some of their chosen careers. Similarly, a working knowledge of Microsoft’s Office suite should be balanced by training in Open Office and Corel’s WordPerfect Office (which, by the way, is still dominant in US, Canadian and British government offices).
What also may prove to be a very significant oversight on the part of successive governments is the failure to have our scholars lead the charge in technology research and development. In 2005, students from the Northern Caribbean University (NCU) won the regional leg of a Microsoft-sponsored IT project (READ MORE), and NCU’s entrants for 2007 placed third in the World Finals. In the US, DARPA – the army’s research agency credited with the creation of what is now the internet – continually funds various university projects or have universities conduct their (DARPA’s) research, to the great benefit of students involved. Participating in government agency projects provides real-world training and experience that can never be matched in the lecture halls, and let’s be honest, it looks really impressive on a résumé!
On a more morbid note, I’m thinking that many of our readers will share the view that our approach to crime in this country has been more of the same, as have been our results – more of the same! It is said a sign of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly, while expecting different results. Undoubtedly, some of our criminal minds aren’t far from insanity, and a similar impairment on our part will do nothing to arrest burgeoning illegal activities. More guns for policemen should only be a part of a solution that includes the purchase of new and improved equipment for forensic analysis, co-operation with a selected international agency (e.g. the FBI or Scotland Yard) to assist in conducting forensic and investigative training of our officers, software and IT platforms that allow for creating an extensive national criminal database accessible from any parish, as well as the mapping of criminal activities and vehicular accidents to determine the hot spots nationally. An integral part of any new crime plan should be a functional 119 service, complete with real-time call tracking (not to be confused with 311), and direct communication access to the constabulary network. If that seems a silly proposal, try calling in a dire emergency only to have a sleepy attendant tell you to call the nearest police station and you’ll rethink your position!
On another note, the state of our medical facilities is bad enough to make you sick – literally! Hospitals worldwide are already on record as the number one source of communicable diseases. But this is compounded locally by a lack of equipment and supplies. Sadly, many of our medical institutions have to rely on the benevolence of the diaspora or businesses to obtain essential equipment. Surely, an islandwide audit conducted by the health ministry would show a desperate need for devices and medicines. Advanced equipment and facilities can only serve to improve our national healthcare.
Any strategy that includes efficiency, productivity and ultimately adding more funds to government coffers should be of great interest to the Ministry of Technology. Some areas where such objectives could be realised include the creation of a Jamaica Public Service subsidiary to operate as an Internet Service Provider. I can just see the furrowed brows now! That’s right, data over powerline is a well established technology in Europe and Canada, with the important advantage of already having infrastructure in place (powerlines). In addition to serving as an ISP, such an entity could also offer premium business services requiring islandwide data connectivity, once solely the realm of C&W’s frame relay. On another note, we’ve all heard the term “from rags to riches”, so how about “from rubbish to riches”? The recent developments surrounding the scrap metal industry should serve as an indication of the value of our refuse – one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In addition to the typical options for recycling (plastics, paper and metal), the fact is a properly designed and administered landfill can serve as a source of methane gas. Bacteria in the dumps produce massive volumes daily, and all that gas goes to waste locally, adding to the quantities of greenhouse emissions. Meanwhile, farmers would certainly benefit from an option to supplement fertilizer with cheap compost in order to cut down on overheads.
If Jamaica is to attain the lofty heights many deem possible, technology will have to play a vital role in our future development. What remains to be seen, is if flights of fancy can ever come to fruition.
A final note: A part of this article was done in Open Office’s Writer on Ubuntu Linux 7.10
Corn Ethanol Production