Deep, for many centuries under the ground. When some only believe it is in its death throes, there are those who have already “buried” the oil age. “It should become Ancient History, to teach the new generations the nonsenses the capitalist model of industrial development led us to, despite its material and technological achievements,” Julio Torres Martínez, vice president of Public Relations of the Cuban Society for the promotion of renewable sources and environmental respect, known as Cubasolar, said.
In fact, a (less addictive) change in our relations with energy is one of the aims of Cubasolar, an entity that Torres helped to found in 1994 and for whose Board of Directors he has been elected several times.
In 2012, when he was vice president of Development and Projects, he wrote a proposal for a medium- to long-term National Programme with a view to “creating a new decentralised electro-energy system capable of resolving power generation in Cuba based on sugarcane biomass.”
It was, he recalls, “one more contribution” to the start of what he calls “the third energy transition toward renewable energy sources and of energy sustainability” on the island.
What is the point? If “all the sugar agribusiness’ development in Cuba was always focused only on manufacturing and exporting sugar, from now on the strategy would be to co-generate and generate, with virtually zero fuel costs, all the base power the country demands, based on sugarcane biomass,” without stopping the production of sugar and other also essential derivatives.
That idea, “which no one contested, though neither has it been materialised,” envisages obtaining variable amounts of electricity, sugar, alcohol and other derivatives “with minimum costs,” at a time when sugar prices on the international market are “sufficiently high” to make its production profitable.
Pure logic, he says. For Torres it is as simple as citing the Club of Rome in its famous book The Limits to Growth, and repeat, with the cadence of a vinyl record, that natural resources (like oil) are not finite, but rather that burning them, based on the idea of infinitely growing, can only be “total absurdity.”
Ecologist and direct, if he speaks of the “kidnapping of coal,” he leans on the forearm and calls it by its name: “propaganda.” In his world this is diplomacy: calling a spade a spade.
With the promise of speaking very soon about his absolute passion: sugarcane and energy in Cuba, I left his office the last time I had the privilege of speaking with someone who was “first a teacher” and for whom there is nothing more pleasing than emptying his brain and letting out pieces like this: multifaceted, multidimensional, tangent to everything and vice versa; that is the subject matter of energy, a complex and complicated matter, in which everything counts. “Even a simple click.”
That is to say that a click, a simple frequently unconscious gesture, makes us important variables in the energy equation?
Yes, doing such apparently unimportant things like turning on or off a light. We all have an influence in electric energy and it is essential for everyone. Turning on a light, that which seems so simple, so little important, gets to the national charge office. Not the impact of the charge, but rather its consequence.
Because we’re speaking of a very inert system, very heavy. The power generation, transmission and distribution systems with alternate current, like those that exist throughout the world since the early 20th century, have to operate strictly balanced. The generation capacity operating at a given moment has to be balanced with the system’s demand, where you as an individual intervene.
Therefore, it is a system that depends on many dimensions (subjective and objective). A power cut like the one in late 2012 here in Cuba is almost nothing compared the one there was in the United States in 2003. Because we’re not speaking of a problem of underdevelopment – taking this into account is very important. It occurred not because we Cubans don’t have the required culture…. Events can occur here similar to those which happen in other parts of the world, even in wealthy and industrialised countries, because of human errors and because of many types of incidents, like electric discharges on the transmission lines, trees not pruned on time that cause failures in these lines, etcetera.
In 2003, for example, the entire eastern art of the United States and a great deal of Canada had a blackout. For several days millions of persons were left without electricity. For a city like New York, it was like the end of the world; in 2006 there was a similar “blackout” in Europe, which affected several countries and millions of persons were also left without electricity for hours and days.
That is why the decentralisation of the electro-energy systems are being studied worldwide (something we started to do in Cuba during the 2004 and 2005 Energy Revolution, with the Power Generation Groups to reduce or avoid the effects of the hurricanes).
Many of us think that the RES (renewable energy sources), because of their distribution characteristic, can contribute even more to simplifying the electro-energy systems and make then more flexible, more resistant to the failures that produced the mentioned “blackouts” in the United States, Canada, Europe and Cuba, as well as reducing the effects on the populations when there are hurricanes and other “natural disasters.” It will be necessary to advance along that path, introducing changes, new and more modern technologies and in Cuba we are also making and will make our efforts, based on the new energy policy approved by the country for the renewable sources and energy efficiency until 2030.
In the face of a drama of a New York in semidarkness, the phenomenon of the high dependency on energy led to some people asking themselves these questions: paradoxes of evolution? The consequence of becoming human?
Well, when does global warming begin as a phenomenon? In the mid-18th century. Man invented the steam engine: an extraordinary device then. From there emerged the railroad, the steam-driven engines, industries…. How did it work at the beginning? With firewood, with wood, which were RES.
But it coincided with a shortage of firewood in London, where the industries were located; and, faced by this, someone came up with the idea of using coal, which not only resolved the problem of the shortage of firewood, but also, by containing double the energy content of firewood, reduced manual cargo labour: if per day you carried firewood three times, with coal it required one and a half times.
And it was very convenient for everyone. At that time the capitalist industrial model of development was emerging. Humanity had always sought the opportunity of multiplying its forces and using its time on other things. From this comes what we call energy services, which consist in placing an energy source to work and save human labour in difficult, dangerous tasks or that require a lot of time and effort. During prehistory, and ever since man dominated fire until the mid-18th century, human and domesticated animal labour was used, with some RES….
And that development model, at some point, became a boomerang….
Up to some 10 years ago, for example, I did not know that when mineral coal was used in the United Kingdom there was a British economist who called attention to a very interesting fact, which transcended as “Jevons’ Paradox.”
The thing is that William Stanley Jevons made a study of how, each time a technological improvement was made on the steam engine to increase the device’s thermodynamic efficiency, fuel consumption in that engine was reduced, but the consumption of coal increased in the country.
When we analyse what has happened with the growth of consumption of energy sources since the 1980s until now, we see that the consumption of commercial energy sources increases, from some seven billion tons in 1987 to some 12.5 billion in 2012 (both figures in terms of equivalent oil). Therefore, it is a constant growth. That, despite the fact that during the second half of the 20th century and early 21st, the capitalist societies have introduced a great many energy efficiency measures, supposedly to reduce the total consumption.
Well, they have not achieved it! Total consumption increases. That is one of capitalism’s characteristics. For Jovens this seemed dangerous because he considered that, at that rate, coal could run out and, since it was the fuel that was driving the development of the British empire, they feared that the increased consumption could cause a collapse. That’s how they saw it. But they did not analyse that it is an intrinsic problem of capitalism. When capitalism has a surplus of something, it grows in another, because it is based on the constant and unlimited growth to sustain its model.
But the known socialist models do not seem “immune” to that tendency….
The first thing that has to be taken into consideration is that we all have the mentality of growth. In Cuba, it is more reinforced by the underdeveloped nature of its economy. We see it as logical and natural that, having unsatisfied needs, we satisfy them, and that the country’s energy demand grow for this.
We are part of the privileged that have more than 97 per cent of the population electrified, but a part of the planning of our development is still made thinking about increasing the per capita consumption of electricity, and how that growing consumption in the world is seen as “natural” and no one knows until when. Here we assimilate it in our mentality that we need to develop and grow.
What is your point of view?
As a human being and an expert on these subjects, I came to a conclusion a long time ago, which is not my idea, but which I learned from other authors: the economy cannot continue growing forever.
But that is planned in concrete terms since 1972. The famous book of the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth, demonstrated that the Earth does not have the resources to continue growing infinitely because the resources are limited. Therefore, battling with finite resources, based on the supposition that it is necessary to grow infinitely, is totally absurd.
With the approval of the Presidential Decree in 2012, Cuba “officially” began an energy transition awaited for a long time, perhaps postponed, some would say. You, who are one of those longstanding fighters, recommend, however, to keep in check that anxiety. Why?
The Presidential Decree of December 2012 is the legal expression of the political will of the government that wants to give a boost to the RES and that is why it seeks that the topmost authority be responsible for this. It creates a governmental commission at the country’s highest level and orders it to work in the diagnosis and development prospect of the RES until 2030. In the last Council of Ministers meeting it was said that the problem of the RES had to be resolved to reduce the external dependence we have of imported fuel.
That is already an accepted and objective truth. Perhaps 20 years ago very few persons thought about that independence; and 30 years ago we depended on the oil that came from the USSR. All our oil came from there, but we were confident, happy, relaxed…because moreover, the socialist system is the system of the future.
Despite this, in 1984 the first Energy Forum was held in Cuba and instructions were given for an energy policy. That meeting dealt with energy saving, energy efficiency, the replacement of fossil fuels with the RES.
Moreover, that Presidential Decree of 2012 is the written, legal expression of a political will, but that doesn’t mean that the following day respect for the RES was already “pervading.” It could not be so because the energy systems are inert, complex and complicated.
If we were to see it from a point of view of the emission of greenhouse gases, you would say: well, and why do we generate electricity with oil when we can do so with RES, in addition to avoiding the emissions of greenhouse gases? Oh, yes, but are you going to turn off the National Energy System based on oil until another based on RES is built? If you are ready to give up electricity for a few years, it is possible to do so. But human beings normally are not ready to live in a cave for a decade to later live with electricity coming from RES. We are not ready.
Moreover, there’s a problem concerning the will of persons. If it is necessary to give participation to the people, we would have to discuss this with 11 million Cubans…. Cubasolar’s first directive is precisely dedicated to the training, formation of a culture, to the training of persons: from the one who cleans the streets to the topmost leader of the country.
For almost two centuries we have been on Earth living off the fossil energy sources, and then now we are going to say we have been wrong for two centuries, that tomorrow we will start living off the renewable sources? It is true that the capitalist industrialising model has been “mistaken” for more than two centuries, but it was not an “innocent” mistake; it was motivated by the model’s design, conceived to enrich a few and the fossil fuels are “ideal for that. It is not possible to change that overnight.
But it is a social transition. Not just of those who decide or of the politicians. The transition to RES seems like a subject for the Cuban parliament….
Yes, there is no doubt about that. The problem with making a transition to the RES entails that everyone has to participate in that process. First, changing their way of thinking and acting with respect to energy. We have been thinking (and using) for two centuries the energy mainly coming from fossil fuels.
In 2013 (which is the last year for which we have statistics that are “trustworthy” to a certain point about an oil transnational like British Petroleum), the world system of primary commercial energy sources still depended almost 87 per cent on fossil fuels. This, on a world level. If we add the nuclear, you already have 90 per cent. The commercial RES stood at around two per cent of the total, and the total was more than 12 billion tons equivalent to oil in just one year.
However, that same year the sun gave the Earth as a “gift” some 9,000 times that amount of energy. If instead of using those fossil sources and the nuclear we would have dedicated ourselves to the RES, and if, in addition, we were convinced about living from them and had the necessary technological infrastructure to use that solar energy…we would have a surplus.
Then, what are we doing? Forty years ago in the entire world we were talking about the anthropogenic climate change and about the need to reduce and avoid the greenhouse gas emissions. Capitalism is not capable of understanding it or changing it.
Now we feel bad because, in Cuba, which is a tiny country that emits less than 0.01 per cent of greenhouse gases, we have been unable to change the energy matrix. It is true, we feel dissatisfied, uncomfortable with that. But, in the world it is those who have the millions, the technology and, supposedly, those who should be convinced because they have studied it for more years, which don’t do it either!
There is a decisive variable in the education and in the democratisation of the access to knowledge, concretely, to public information….
But there are also moments (in the information about energy) in which we should be capable of always maintaining it, because if we want to educate the people in that direction we have to pass on those ideas. It’s not a thing of one day, or through a workshop. In terms of the press there is the question of immediacy, but that frequently puts an end to the lines and the strategies of information and education. “To speak again about the workshop?” some journalists have said to me.
Do you believe there is a lack of imagination to deal with these issues?
The Cuban press needs imagination, culture and conviction to tackle those issues; acting more or less as a meta-stable system: at each moment what is required at each moment. But then we have to think, is the education on RES given one time or should it be permanent?
With the information on the policy for the development prospect of renewable sources and efficient use of energy for the period of 2013-2030, the initial effort doesn’t seem sufficient…. By the way, to what extent did it meet your expectations?
In my opinion, sugarcane biomass and the sugar agribusiness has to have a greater participation in power generation, and at present that participation is less than what I believe would be possible and necessary if we set our minds on that.
We have been studying for 20 years how the matter can be organised in the sugar agribusiness. We even have a programme that was drawn up in 2012 with comrades from the Electro-Energy Research and Essays Centre (CIPEL) and it was not contested. If measures are proposed now and they are less advanced than the one of that programme, we could say that those measures are not sufficient.
Why, because they do not envisage the need. If we can advance at a certain pace, why do it at less? Several things happen at a lesser pace: the greenhouse gas emissions continue increasing, the oil dependence continues – which could even increase -, millions of pesos continue being spent in buying oil that is burned…, then I believe that a part of those millions of pesos should be invested in promoting the change of the electric energy base in the system of power generation. It is a need, not an alternative.
Then, are the electric energy base and energy matrix not equivalent?
No. And in addition the two things are necessary. They are different, but we have to change them, case by case, to resolve our problems. If we change the power generation base of the National Energy System (the electricity consumed during the 24 hours of the day), we would in fact already be changing the matrix. But we don’t need to focus this as one more matter, but rather that it is resolved as a consequence of resolving the first. That is precisely a characteristic of development in the energy sphere, which allows for simplifying and lowering the costs of the required changes, which is the integral and coordinated focus of the development sectorial policies with the energy policies, through the famous holistic focus of the problem. (2015)
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