Cuba's energy revolution

Campaign News | Wednesday, 1 February 2006

The most comprehensive effort to solve the energy crisis and raise the quality of life

By Istvan Ojeda Bello

What is the relationship between the new Chinese rice cookers that are currently being sold to all Cuban families and a young social worker inside a gas truck?

What is the link between replacing lighting with energy-efficient bulbs and the world market price of oil?

Sometimes, the flood of information published every day and the range of politically nuanced opinions make it difficult for people grasp the essence of this issue.

If one takes a close look at all the measures that Cuba has adopted over the past two years -which President Fidel Castro has called an "energy revolution"- it can be seen that they all aim at a single objective: raising the quality of life of the people while optimizing the overall consumption of fuel.

The Oil Impetus

Some reflections can support this assertion.

First of all, let us review the national context.

So far, Cuba has had an electricity grid based on huge thermoelectric plants, which often had to transmit power to the opposite end of the island through deteriorated distribution networks.

Throughout the island, there are tens of thousands of high-energy consuming household appliances, including stoves and lights.

The economic crises of the 1990?s, that followed the demise of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp, favored the growth of a lucrative black market for cooking fuel, as well as the underground production and trade of all types of hand-made gadgets targeted at meeting people's demand for alternative ways to cook their food.

What were the consequences? The state was forced to dedicate over 60 percent of its earnings to import oil - half of which was burnt by thermoelectric plants to generate power. That was like continually throwing money down a bottomless hole.

Under those circumstances some events made the situation unsustainable. These included a serious breakdown at the Antonio Guiteras thermoelectric plant in western Matanzas province, the passage of three hurricanes over past two hurricane seasons, and last the steep rise of world market oil prices.

What was the result? Between the summers of 2004 and 2005 there were 122 days with power outages. Classical solutions like building new thermoelectric plants or providing all families with liquid gas to cook would only have been possible if the horn of plenty had been found.

By turning again to the initial point, everything that happened later makes sense. How is it possible to make fuel consumption more efficient, while raising the quality of life of Cubans?

Obviously, it was necessary to fill the gap through which most of the crude oil purchased ran: power generation

Solving that critical problem means tying all the loose ends. Ending the exclusive dependence on huge thermoelectric plants that have proven to be extremely fragile has called for a comprehensive strategy; this has meant changing the entire system of power generation and distribution. This is why those changes have been called an energy revolution.

Tying Loose Ends

Cuba began focusing on power generation - the heart of the system.

Hundreds of smaller power generators have been installed across the island. Their overall capacity is equivalent to building almost four thermoelectric plants like the Antonio Guiteras facility, the largest on the island.

Once the installation of all the generators is concluded, the country will be able to produce 1,320 megawatts per hour, thereby saving $100,700,000 in investment, at least 40 tons of oils a day and six years of hard work.

This is not to mention that only 10 percent of all generated power will be lost through the distribution networks, as the transmission distance is considerably reduced. At the same time, a province like Pinar del Rio will not be without power for as long a time after being battered by a hurricane.

However, those measures wouldn't be effective if other end of the line is not corrected. Being a network, there are several lines and acting upon each one of them means closing fuel leak.

It is at this point when electric appliances come into the scene. Their common feature is that they demand much less power compared to their “cousins” produced in the Soviet Union or the home-made gadgets traded by clandestine vendors.

At the same time, the state reinforced actions to eliminate the squandering of fuel within the system of refining and distribution. But such a measure would have been futile had the not demand for kerosene for cooking been eliminated.

The case of a Havana farmer, who used to receive 40 liters of fuel oil every month for his tractor, can be quite illustrative.

He assured researchers that 25 liters wound up in his kitchen.

“What would you do if you were provided with less fuel, taking into account that the distance that your tractor runs," an interviewer asked.

"I would go on using 25 liters to cook," he replied.

Such a determination can only be changed by providing that man with another option for him to prepare his meals, and that is precisely what the state is doing with the sale of electric stoves and rice cookers.

Another flank which had to be covered was the making of bread and the distribution of water.

More than 100,000 electric engines pump water through the island's water system, most of them are antiquated and squander electricity. Gradually those machines will be substituted with more efficient ones.

The comprehensive nature of Cuba's energy revolution is even more apparent when one learns of government plans encompassing the renovation of the cable lines that take electricity to each and every home. These improvements to the lines will reduce power cuts, voltage oscillations, and energy losses.

The country even seeks to reduce the consumption of oil through the use of gas which accompanies oil extracted in Cuba. In fact, currently some 235,000 kilowatts per hour are generated through the use of that gas. Soon, new equipment will be installed to achieve an overall generation of half a million kilowatts per hour through that resource.

There are also plans to generate electric energy though wind and solar power.

The energy revolution is neither a temporary campaign nor political demagogy. We are probably witnessing one of the most comprehensive and best planned efforts to raise the quality of life of the people, consuming fuel in a rational and economic way

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