Revolutionary Education: PV Powered

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Courtesy of Solar Energy International

Travel around rural Latin America and you’re sure to see schools without basic educational tools, let alone electricity. Not in Cuba. More than 34,000 children in rural areas of this small Caribbean island are reading, writing, and watching educational videos using the power of the sun.

Cuba’s commitment to education is astounding. Although many countries have obligatory schooling, Cubans take mandatory schooling to mean that they are required to provide the best educational opportunities possible for their children.

They also take family seriously. In order to allow small children to remain close to their homes, every rural community, no matter how remote or how small, has a primary school. And every primary school in these remote areas is now powered by photovoltaics (PVs).

Before 1959, Cuba had 800 MW of electrical generating capacity, and the majority of it was in the large cities. After the Cuban revolution in 1959, the government made rural electrification a priority. In the next thirty years, 95 percent of the country was electrified with over 3,000 MW of capacity.

Recovering from Soviet Oil Dependency
Cuba had been buying oil inexpensively from the Soviet Union. The 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, along with a tightening of the U.S. enforced economic blockade, led to the bottom falling out of the Cuban economy.

From 1989 to 1993, the island’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell by half, from US$19.3 billion to US$10 billion. Since Cuba couldn’t trade sugar for oil with Moscow, the country lost most of its petroleum supplies overnight. Imports fell by 75 percent—much of that was food, spare parts, agrochemicals, and industrial equipment.

Without oil, industrial production fell, factories closed, public transport collapsed, blackouts became common, and agriculture and food production were paralyzed. In 1993, at the height of the crisis, Cuba was spending 60 percent of its import bill on food and oil.

The years since 1989 are known as the “special period,” a time when the Cuban people have had to figure out a way of coping with their grave economic problems. The state moved dramatically to restructure the economy. For the most part, Cubans sympathize with the state’s efforts to distribute available food as fairly as possible. The special period has been a time of belt-tightening. But the consensus is that the problem is a national one, which all Cubans need to work on together to solve.

Cuba had to begin buying oil on the international market, which their fledgling economy could not afford. This led to a desire to decrease their dependence on fossil fuels and use more renewables.

Cuba is now using biogas, biomass, solar, wind, and microhydro energy. The residue from sugarcane, Cuba’s main export crop, is used to power the 156 sugar mills in Cuba. The excess electricity is put into the grid. Over 220 microhydro systems, from 8 KW to 500 KW, supply 30,000 Cubans with electricity. Besides the 9,000 mechanical windmills in Cuba, the island now has a 0.45 MW wind farm to supply electricity to the national electricity grid.

2,000 School PV Systems
Even during the special period, social programs, such as education and health care, were not cut, but remained a high priority of the Cuban revolution. To better the quality of education for their children, in the year 2000, the Cuban government financed a program to electrify all of the primary schools in the country that had no electricity. The program was carried out by PV distributor Ecosol Solar.

Ecosol Solar is a division of Copextel, a private Cuban technology company that specializes in computers, electronics, telecommunications, and other high technologies. Ecosol Solar sells, services, and installs photovoltaics, solar thermal, wind, biomass, and hybrid systems.

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