Solar Energy International

The Sol of Cuba

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Courtesy of Solar Energy International

I went to Cuba with Global Exchange, a non-profit organization that organizes “reality tours” of Cuba. The tour coincided with an international solar energy conference organized by CubaSolar, a nongovernmental Cuban organization. Having worked on numerous solar energy projects in Central America, I went to Cuba with the misconception that I could use my renewable energy technology transfer skills there. However, I quickly learned that the last thing this country of 11 million people needs is technical assistance. In the middle of an economic crisis and struggling against a U.S. trade embargo, Cubans have advanced far past anything I would have ever imagined.

Cuba’s Energy History
Until 1960, Cuba’s electricity was based on petroleum and was mostly for large cities and tourist places. The majority of rural areas had no electricity. The whole country was surviving on barely 800 MW. The revolution of 1959 led to a big push for rural electrification. By 1989, 96% of the country was electrified, with over 3000 MW. However, Cuba was importing most of its petroleum from the socialist bloc at low prices. In 1989, with the falling of the socialist bloc, Cuba could not afford to buy petroleum on the international market. They had been using 4 million tons of petroleum per year for electricity for houses. This had to be cut down to 2 million. The need to reduce their energy usage by 50% led to an extreme revamping of their energy plan and a huge push for renewable energy.

Energy, Sweet Energy
Sugar is the heart of Cuba’s renewable energy program. Sugarcane, Cuba’s main export crop, is supplying almost 30% of the energy used in Cuba. After the cane is harvested, the residue (bagasse) is used to power the whole processing plant. They then sell the excess electricity back to the grid. There are 156 sugar mills in Cuba. They each produce 20 to 80 kWh/ton of bagasse. They are also compressing the waste parts of the plant, such as the leaves and the stalk, to be used as a solid fuel.

Energy from Cuba’s Rivers
The second most important renewable energy source in Cuba is micro-hydro power. Cuba is not blessed with many large rivers, but it does have a lot of small rivers. This turns out to be a great advantage. They have not had the chance to create the massive destruction of large dams as the U.S. has, but have installed over 220 micro-hydro systems supplying 30,000 Cubans with electricity. Right now they are generating 55 MW from hydro sites, with an annual generation of 80 GWh. Some of the systems are used to provide electricity to remote regions without the grid, and other systems are used to sell electricity back into the grid. The systems range from 8 kW up to 500 kW.

One of the towns we visited in Guama, a province with 30 micro-hydro plants, has a 30 kW system. The system provides electricity for the 250 people living in 56 houses. Each house is limited to 100 watts, and the entire community is only using 10 kW. They eventually want to send their excess electricity to the next town over, which is 4 kilometers away, and is also not connected to the grid. Four people operate the system, each working six hours per day. They make sure the output of the hydro system meets the demand of the community. The people in the town only need to pay a small fee to cover the salaries of the four operators.

The “Sol” of Cuba
We also had the chance to visit a beautiful town in the mountains called Magdalena. Magdalena is off the grid as well, and is completely powered by photovoltaics. The community has a population of 574. Each house has its own 70 Watt PV system to run compact fluorescent DC lights, radio, and television. The houses each have 18 lighting hours per day. There are 11 Watt PV street lights lining the street. There is also a 3 kW PV powered water pumping system which pumps 30,000 gallons of water per day for the entire community. The community center has an inverter to run ac appliances, and the doctor’s office has a larger 8 panel system with a PV powered vaccine refrigerator.

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