Cuban environmentalists look to the skies, not Venezuelan oil, for future energy sources

Cuban environmentalists hope to promote renewable energy on the island, in bid to reduce Cuba’s dependency on fossil fuels such as oil which often have to be imported from Venezuela.

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Solar panels set against the background of the Sierra Maestra in southern Cuba.

A partnership has been struck up between the Cuban NGO Cubasolar and the Cuban Association of the United Nations (ACNU) that will seek to promote the development of renewable energy production on the Caribbean island state, it was announced in Havana last week. Over the coming months, the working group will participate in conferences and forums on topics such as the environment, climate change, sustainable development and renewable energy, with the aim of boosting education and awareness of these issues among Cuban society.

Pursuing such an initiative could prove to be an enormous challenge: as with most aspects of Cuban life, energy policy is subject to strict control by the Cuban government, a one-party system comprising the Partido Comunista de Cuba (PCC – Communist Party of Cuba) and led by the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raúl, since the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Furthermore, Cuba currently gets some 95% of its electricity from fossil fuels, namely oil, and has historically relied on imports from other countries. From the early days of the Revolution, it benefitted from heavily subsidised oil imports from the Soviet Union, and when the latter collapsed between 1989 and 1991, Cuba was left high and dry, leading to a severe economic and social crisis known on the island as The Special Period that saw its economy shrink by over a third in just four years.

It has since recovered thanks in no small part to subsidised oil from Venezuela, through the PetroCaribe alliance comprising almost 20 Latin American and Caribbean states and based on preferential deals on Venezuelan crude oil. However, with the economic and political crisis currently being played out in the South American oil giant, many analysts are wondering what could happen to the fragile Cuban regime if a change in government in Venezuela led to an end to cheap oil flows to Cuba and other neighbouring countries, something which many leading members of the Venezuelan opposition have indicated would happen.

With this in mind, and considering Cuba’s stakes in helping to avert catastrophic climate change fuelled by the burning of fossil fuels and release of greenhouse gases, the time is ripe for a meaningful development of alternative energy sources in Cuba. The island nation is highly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, being in the firing line of more frequent and intense North Atlantic hurricanes, sea-level rises, and extreme weather patterns affecting its highly important agricultural sector.

A sugar mill in Cuba; biomass from Cuba’s important sugar cane industry is one potential source of renewable energy on the island.

The production and export of Sugar have been an essential component of the Cuban economy since colonial times, and the sector is also central to what little renewable energy capacity the island currently has. Around 90% of renewable energy production (which in itself still only accounts for 5% of all energy) in Cuba comes from biomass resulting from the sugar industry, and this source alone is insufficient to drive Cuba’s renewables sector into the future, according to Cubasolar’s vice-president Julio Torres.

It is for this reason that the NGO want to put an emphasis on developing other non-conventional means of generating electricity, namely from hydroelectric, wind, and photovoltaic (solar) sources, although not without abandoning biomass. At the moment, wind power has perhaps been the more successful out of these options in Cuba, with several wind farms positioned around the island and three more currently under construction.

However, Torres believes that the one with most potential is solar, which in his view is on the verge of “taking off” following the inauguration of two solar farms comprising almost 20,000 photovoltaic panels last year. In comments made at the announcement of the Cubasolar-ACNU partnership, he put forward the argument that given that the sun is going to keep on shining for an almost infinite amount of time (a good billion years or so), and that energy derived from it is generally very clean and less costly by the year, Cuba needed to ensure that the right conditions, both technological and institutional, were put in place to encourage the development of a solar sector.

State support for solar technology, along with other forms of renewables, is included in the government’s economic and energy policies. So too is the exploration for more oil in the seas surrounding the island, but so far these efforts have borne little fruit, giving more impetus to the argument that the government needs to focus on developing renewable energy sources.

Furthermore, the approval of new foreign investment laws by the Cuban government last month, which include among their aims the attraction of foreign investment in Cuban renewable energy schemes, suggests that the Castro regime is willing to take drastic measures to ensure that it gets its energy from cleaner sources in the future, bringing down its proportion of energy derived from fossil fuels from the current 95% to a mark that is more in tune with individual countries’ obligations on carbon reductions as part of global efforts to counter climate change. Not only would a switch to greener electricity prove beneficial to many Cubans through cleaner air and surrounding environment, but it would be an enormous step towards greater energy security, the importance of which cannot be understated given the all too sharp recent memories of the Special Period and the current political situation in Venezuela.

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