After living for almost a century obsessed with oil, Cubans are turning their eyes toward healthier and more lasting energy sources. The search for territories favourable for the installation of wind and solar parks has joined the projects to exploit, under a new label, the historic mine of wealth in Cuba, sugarcane.
Almost on a par with the U.S. oil boom early last century, Cuba hooked on to the wagon of total import of fuels and to the dream of finding some day its own deposits. The foreign energy dependence led to successive economic crises when it lost almost suddenly, once and again, its monopolist supplier: in the early 1960s when commercial ties with the United States were broken and four decades later when the Soviet Union disappeared.
As a result, in the 1990s the Caribbean nation resorted to the formula of risk contracts with foreign companies for the prospecting and expansion of its oil deposits. National extraction went up, from ridiculous levels, to four million tons per year, if the equivalent of a million tons of gas is added. With that production, the country covers around half of its energy consumption. It imports the other part from Venezuela.
However, government experts and officials recognised on a TV programme, the Mesa Redonda, dedicated to the subject, that the dependence on imported fuels is still high. In addition to the resulting risks, the price of power generation rises when almost totally resting – 96 percent – on the use of hydrocarbons.
The low efficiency of the majority of the thermoelectric plants and the high losses in the distribution networks increasingly raises the price of power generation. Each kilowatt (kWh) costs 21 cents of a dollar.
Even though Cubans continue dreaming with the expansion of their oil deposits, especially through prospecting in its territory in the Gulf of Mexico, the government has redirected its bets in favour of renewable energy sources.
During the parliamentary session held last July, the vice president in charge of heading the changes of the Cuban economic model, Marino Murillo, announced to the deputies plans to invest 3.6 billion dollars in the development of alternative energy sources. The aim is to change the Cuban energy matrix to raise the participation of renewable sources to 24 percent, he said. Today they only contribute 4.3 percent.
To take such an ambitious leap, the country is developing several options. The solar panel parks are included among the newest. In Cantarrana, Cienfuegos province, in the centre of the country, the first of these installations is working, equipped with 14,000 photovoltaic panels. Since its start up in December 2012 until mid August this year, it has handed over more than 4,740 megawatt/hours to the National Energy System, according to reports by the Cuban press.
The generation in Cantarrana based on solar radiation saved the country 3,021 tons of fuel and avoided the emission into the atmosphere of 3,769 tons of carbon dioxide, said Daniel López Torres, a technician in the exploitation of electric plants.
Cuba has already installed eight similar photovoltaic parks, with a total capacity of 12,000 kW, to which 10,000 kW would be added before the end of the first quarter of next year. The plan is to achieve a capacity of 700,000, with an investment of a billion dollars. As a prior step, specialised centres determined through a Solar Map of Cuba that the radiation is practically uniform throughout the country.
The same does not occur with the localisation of the energy potential of the winds. According to the Eolian Map, updated last year, the most promising region is located along the northern coast, from the centre to the eastern tip of the island. The two largest parks of this type (the first with six wind-driven generators with 850 kW of power each one, and the second with another six with 750 kW each) are already working close to the coastal city of Gibara, in the eastern province of Holguín.
The government plans made public in the Mesa Redonda programme broadcast in mid August hope to install a generation capacity of 633,000 kW based on eolian energy, through an investment of more than 1.1 billion dollars. The spending would be recovered in four to six years, much faster than the aforementioned solar panels, which would take between 11 and 13 years to cover the investment.
The biggest expectations, however, point to the exploitation of sugarcane biomass. At a cost of 1.29 billion dollars, to be recovered in six to eight years, the government aims to develop bioelectric plants associated to 19 sugar factories, to use bagasse and other raw materials of plant origin. When those plans are carried out, the industry that supported for centuries the Cuban economy would participate in 14 percent of the power generation. The winds would supply 5.4 percent and solar radiation 3.5 percent. Between the three they contribute today less than four percent.
To expand at such a scale the use of renewable sources, the country needs 3.7 billion dollars. From where will that financing come? Officials at the Energy and Mining Ministry announced during the Mesa Redonda TV programme that the country would seek the money through government credits with other countries. Also through foreign direct investment. One of the first steps was taken by Cuba when it signed agreements with British firms for the development of electric plants in the sugar industry. (2014)
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