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Off the Grid in Cuba: Renewable Energy on a Budget

Although the benefits of renewable energy are widely acknowledged, few countries use it as a main source of power. Most do not have the incentives to renovate their energy infrastructure to significantly integrate renewable resources. Cuba, however, was forced to do so when the Soviet trading block collapsed, thereby ending their flow of subsidized oil. With this abrupt loss of energy supplies, Cuba confronted “peak oil” conditions ahead of most other countries. Peak oil, the point at which petroleum production worldwide hits its maximum and begins a permanent decline, will eventually affect every country, and those with limited resources will be particularly vulnerable to the resulting instability. By chipping away at fossil-fuel consumption with many dispersed, micro-level projects, as well as some large biofuel and wind projects, Cuba was able to supply approximately 38 percent of its total energy consumption with renewable energy by 2003, [1] significantly more than the seven percent of total U.S. renewable energy use.[2] With few resources, Cuba invested in various renewable energy projects, thereby ensuring a source of power regardless of international conditions and creating a valuable example for developing countries who wish to increase the use of non-carbon based fuels.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered into a time of acute economic difficulty that lasted from 1989 into the mid-1990s. During this “Special Period,” as it was called, oil imports fell 76 percent by 1993, causing nearly all economic activity to grind to a halt. Public services were also threatened. Since the agricultural system was based on the highly mechanized Soviet model, food became scarce. The average Cuban caloric intake dropped by nearly one third during this time. It was imperative to cut down on energy use and find new sources of fuel to farm, transport food and supply basic services, including the electricity needed to run schools and hospitals. The government limited energy use throughout Cuba, culminating in a declared “Energy Revolution” in 2006 that aimed to drastically cut national energy use. Going door to door, officials distributed energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs and Chinese-made appliances to replace older, inefficient models. Although the country already had a history of alternative fuel use, the Special Period saw Cubans constructing far more renewable energy projects using solar, hydro, and wind power technology. Pre-existing biofuel production was updated to be more efficient. Lacking the resources to extend the national energy grid into the mountainous rural areas of Cuba, renewable energy sources also became crucial to providing power and basic services to rural towns in an affordable and sustainable way.

Biofuels made from sugar-refining waste are Cuba’s dominant source of renewable energy. Non-fuelwood biomass supplied over 34 percent of total energy consumption in 2003, or nearly 90 percent of renewable energy use in Cuba.[3] This includes the large amounts of energy used to process sugar. Even before the Special Period, Cuba had been burning bagasse, the fibrous leftovers of the sugar cane stalk, in boilers to power sugar refineries and would send any remaining energy to the national grid. The conversion process was originally designed to be inefficient to burn off more bagasse waste than was necessary since it was also a form of waste disposal. Sugar mills built in the 1980s, however, improved the technology to create electricity efficiently. Other waste products are used for fuel as well. The stalks and leaves of the plant are converted into a solid fuel source[4] and the mineral and wax residues, called “cachaza,” are turned into methane biogas for cooking.[5] After fuel imports and domestic use were severely constricted, biofuels supplied the power equivalent of four million tons of oil in 1989.[6] By 1996, Cuba had over 150 sugar mills. Each one produced 20-80 kilowatt-hours (kWh), or 1.6 to 6.4 percent of per capita energy consumption per mill in Cuba. Cuba used approximately 1,200 kWh per capita in 2006. The United States, by comparison, uses approximately ten times that amount per capita.[7][8] Although the sugar industry has suffered severe losses since the late 1990s resulting in the closure of the majority of Cuba’s sugar refineries in 2002, the industry remains the largest producer of alternative fuel, powering both sugar refineries and the national grid.

Like biofuels, hydropower has a long and prominent history in Cuba, as well. The first grid-connected hydropower plant was built in 1917 and generated 1.7 megawatts (1,700 kW) of energy.[9] One megawatt (MW) can power 225 to 300 U.S. homes, which use drastically more power than Cuban households.[10] Today, Cuba has over 200 micro hydro plants and generators in nine out of 14 provinces. The Cuban government has been further increasing its investment in water energy infrastructure in recent years. In 2007, hydropower plant equipment was updated, operators received training, and Cuban rivers created the equivalent of over 30,000 tons of fuel.[11]

While most hydropower projects in Cuba are small scale, they vary in size. Some plants are large enough to provide electricity to the national grid and can produce up to 500 kW. The smallest hydropower plants produce only 8 kW and are used to power remote villages.[12] While hydropower only accounted for 0.1 percent of power generation in 2003, its presence has been steadily growing since, and has been an important, and often lone, energy source in rural, off-the-grid areas.[13] The main drawback with hydropower, however, is that the water levels in rivers can vary and be unpredictable depending on the season and amount of rainfall, making the energy output fluctuate as well.

Solar power is another popular renewable fuel source in Cuba, especially in rural areas. Cubans use two types of solar energy: passive and photovoltaic. Passive solar power uses the direct heat from the sun to supply energy. By 1992, Cuba had produced and distributed over 400 passive solar-powered water heaters, which is the most common use of passive solar energy. Direct sunlight is also used for solar cooking and drying crops.

Most solar energy, however, is captured through photovoltaic (PV) cells. Whereas power lines cost between $7,000 and $12,500 per kilometer to lengthen, a solar PV panel system large enough to power a rural school costs under $2,500, making solar a cost-effective alternative to traditional forms of energy.[14] Because there are no moving parts in the PV cells, they rarely malfunction and are more reliable than diesel generators. The main cost associated with solar energy is in buying and assembling the necessary materials. Cuba imports the silicone wafers and other parts in bulk and, with the technology purchased through a $500,000 United Nations Development Program grant, assembles the PV cells domestically. This allows for 70 percent of PV cell construction to occur in Cuba, thereby significantly reducing their cost.[15]

Like hydropower, solar energy is crucial for the 5 percent of Cubans who are not connected to the energy grid. In some areas, entire towns are powered by PV cells, most notably schools and health clinics. In 1998, 57 percent of the energy used in Guantánamo province, a rural area with low accessibility, came from small-scale solar or hydropower.[16] By 2003, over 2,300 schools and 350 doctor’s offices were running on solar energy.[17]

Many households run on solar power, as well. The typical home system includes two 40-watt solar panels and a 150-amp-hour battery to store the energy harnessed during the day for nighttime use. This provides enough energy to light five 20-watt compact fluorescent light bulbs, a radio and a television. Often times a modified car battery or two are connected to the PV panels, giving anywhere from 70 to 300 amp-hours, depending on how many batteries are used. Many rural clinics were previously outfitted with four PV panels and a 250-amp-hour battery, but the government now installs systems with double that capacity to allow for kerosene-powered refrigerators to store vaccines and a two-way radio to communicate with nearby hospitals. This reliable, 24-hour power source allows patients to be treated into the evening hours and reduces the amount of travel necessary for medical attention.

La Magdalena is an example of a town that is fully powered by solar energy. With a population of nearly 600, solar panels power homes, street lights, a town water pump and a vaccine refrigerator.[18] Solar power is not only used in rural areas, however. It is becoming more popular in the tourism industry, particularly with the growing trend of ecotourism.

Wind power is also attracting significant attention and funding from the government. Small-scale windmills are widely used among private farmers and cooperatives to pump water and power irrigation. By 1996, there were approximately 9,000 wind-powered water pumps in Cuba, each one saving an average of one ton of oil equivalent per year.[19][20] The Cuban government has also invested in several large-scale wind farms. The first wind turbines were installed on Turiguano Island in 1999, producing up to 4.5 MW of power. Since this first eolian farm was constructed, two more have been inaugurated. The largest, Gibara I in Holguín province, produced the equivalent of 220 tons of oil in its first month of operation. A fourth eolian project is now underway in Holguín. Government officials expect the three operational wind farms to be working at near capacity by the end of 2008, generating about 11.5 MW of energy total.[21] That is enough to power between 2,600 and 3,450 homes in the United States, which uses nearly 10 times the amount of energy per capita as Cuba. Although there are relatively few large scale efforts in wind power, the Cuban government has shown a marked interest in it. Cuban authorities commissioned an eolian map showing the areas with the highest wind potential on the island in order to plan future projects.

Cuba is now exporting renewable technologies to other low resource countries. Cuban company Ecosol Solar has sent solar panels to Bolivia, Honduras and Mali, among others.[22] Although Cuba continues to extract crude oil and explore offshore reserves, the government is simultaneously improving the efficiency and capacity of current energy projects and looking into other experimental methods of renewable energy generation, like ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC). Through this method, the difference in temperature between deep and shallow waters turns a heat engine, creating energy. The first OTEC experimental project was built in Cuba in 1930 because of the island’s favorable conditions, but this technology remains exceedingly costly and inefficient, and is still far from being implemented in Cuba.

With the onset of the Special Period, Cuba lost three quarters of its oil imports and was forced to institute frequent rolling blackouts lasting up to 16 hours at their peak. With no power to run fans or refrigerators during the hot summer nights of 2004, and after 248 days of blackouts in 2005, Cuba’s energy crisis had become debilitating.[23] Cuba turned to alternative sources of energy to provide cost-effective, reliable, and renewable sources of power. With very few resources, Cuba established mostly micro-sized renewable energy projects that, all together, have made a significant impact, most notably in rural areas where oil-based electricity is largely unavailable. Although the initial investment in renewable technologies may be expensive, the energy generation itself is not, making it an excellent option for low-resource countries like Cuba. With the help of international funding, Cuba has also invested in larger projects, including more efficient biofuel converters and industrial-sized wind farms that supply electricity to the national power grid. Developing a sustainable source of energy has allowed the government to improve education and health services throughout the country with more modern technology and longer working hours, reduce the amount spent on energy to redirect it to other needs, and maintain a baseline of economic security independent of the international political climate. Cuba’s example provides a valuable lesson to other low-resource countries whose security would be enhanced by finding alternatives to high-priced and increasingly scarce traditional fuel sources.

Written by: Danielle Barav



Category/ies:Cuba Articles.
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