Renewable Energy a Practical Alternative for Cuba

by Fabiola Bueno Sánchez
Saturday, December 15, 2007

Cuba represents an important model for renewable energy development, with projects going back 50 years. The renewable energy revolution really took off after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, after which Cuba could no longer trade sugar for oil with Moscow and lost most of its petroleum supplies overnight.   

Cuba has increased its reliance on a number of renewable energy resources, including biomass, biogas, small-scale hydroelectric, solar and wind power. The use and development of these renewable energies has helped to overcome many of the country’s social and economic problems.  

The Cuban archipelago is made up of the main island of Cuba, the Isla de la Juventud, and more than 4,000 other smaller islands and keys in the Caribbean Sea. Cuba has a population of more than 11 million people, of which 75% live in urban areas.   

Historically, one of the principal sources of renewable energy in Cuba has been biomass from sugarcane. Up until the early 1990s, the Cuban sugarcane industry was responsible for the production of 10% of the electricity generated in the country. However, due to the decline in the value of sugar prices on the international market, about half of the sugarcane processing factories were closed, which forced the industry to restructure and reduce its production. As a result, energy production from sugarcane has dropped significantly in the past 15 years.   

Biogas is another major renewable energy source in Cuba. Biogas is produced by the anaerobic decomposition of organic wastes and is a low-cost source of renewable energy that is used for household cooking and the generation of electricity. Biogas also produces useful byproducts such as fertilizers and food for fish and poultry production. For this reason, biogas is promoted and developed for use in schools, rural homes, tourist facilities, and in factories, which might otherwise depend on thermal generators.  

Due to the limited size and minimal flows of Cuba’s rivers, hydroelectricity has not been an important source of renewable energy for the island. Nonetheless, 176 hydro power plants have been developed in order to exploit the available water resources. This includes:   

138 pico hydro projects with a total of 3,033 kw installed capacity, nine of which are connected to the national grid. 32 micro hydro projects with a total of 4,030 kw installed capacity, 12 of which are connected to the national grid.   

5 small-scale hydro projects with a total of 7 MW of installed capacity, all of which are connected to the national grid.  

1 medium-scale, grid-tied hydro project with 43 MW of installed capacity, operated by the government.   

The development of solar photovoltaic energy has been one of Cuba’s renewable energy triumphs. All rural schools and health clinics in Cuba have been powered by solar PV energy, as well as five hospitals, 1,800 television viewing centers, homes and other off-grid installations. To carry out the ambitious school electrification project, local NGOs Cubasolar and Ecosol trained brigades in each of the provinces on how to install PV systems. Twenty-five brigades went to the rural areas, installed the systems and trained local people in system maintenance. Teachers help with basic maintenance, but schools also receive regular maintenance visits from qualified technicians. There are also repair shops in each province.  

Passive solar energy is used for solar drying of agricultural products, while solar thermal is used to heat water for domestic and industrial applications.   

In April 2005, as part of the government- sponsored Revolución Energética, a committee on wind energy was formed to investigate the potential of wind energy in Cuba. The group analyzed all of the islands’ potential wind project sites. Model wind farm projects have since been built on the islands of Turiguanó and Canarreos, which are in the process of being replicated in other areas of the country.

Public education key

An important consideration for the implementation of any renewable energy source is consumer education. The comprehensive training and education of energy users has played a pivotal role in the successful widespread implementation and use of these non-traditional energy sources in Cuba.   

The National Program for a Sustainable Energy Culture has been the platform for the massive dissemination of renewable energy education in Cuba. The principal objectives of the program are to promote, prioritize, strengthen and reinforce the use and development of renewable sources of energy in a rational and sustainable manner, and to contribute to the emergence of a new culture of energy awareness. The emphasis is on the need to use and develop sources of energy that are locally available and respect the environment, while also reducing the demand for energy.   

Local and national government leaders, media sources, health and education programs, community organizations, and other institutions work together to project the underlying message for a Sustainable Energy Culture, promote the use of renewable energy sources and the importance of energy conservation.