Alternative Energy in Cuba: Hopefully I’m Wrong

Erasmo Calzadilla

Illustration by Onel

HAVANA TIMES — An energy crisis is looming over the world, and Cuba’s not exempt. Basic commodities and food will become scarce — like during the Special Period crisis of the ‘90s — but there will also be crises related to politics, climate, health conditions, ethics and with our mental patterns of behavior.

In short, this all portends a return to our pre-industrial and pre-global past – back to the times of cholera and pirates.

No one knows for sure when the mega-blackouts will return? Within five years? A decade? Some scholars insist that by 2030 the world will be a mess, but poor and petroleum-importing countries (like ours) will go bankrupt sooner than that.

Of the 176,000 barrels of oil consumed in Cuba daily, a little more than half is imported (109,500 barrels according to estimates of the IndexMundi Petroleo Importaciones).

This data gives us a vague idea of ??the magnitude the crisis will reach once those supplies are disrupted. However the situation will actually be much worse, because the oil extracted from Cuban soil is inefficient.

It seems that our “salvation” will be our sun and culture.

The sun

Nature endowed Cuba with intense sunlight most of the year. Thanks to this, we don’t need heating or too many other resources to get through the winter. In addition, the sun and our climate favor the year round growth of food producing plants, raw materials and fuel.

The difficulty lies in the fact that traditional types of agriculture — non-intensive, without herbicides or synthetic fertilizers, and under the conditions of our eroded soils — are unlikely to sustain the 11 million people living on our alligator-shaped archipelago.

Each square meter of this green lizard receives a daily dose of solar radiation equivalent to about a quart of oil (5 kw/hour). However, the devices that generate electricity from the astro sun king are too exotic. These are applied in isolated cases, but for some unknown reason their use isn’t widespread.

Nor is it common to use more rustic devices that exploit the sun’s heat for domestic and industrial uses. Solar ovens — which are very useful and easy to construct — are largely unknown.

If we continue along this path, we’re going to have to forget about high-tech sun alternatives and we’ll end up making better alternative use of our sweltering and hot comrade of always.


It’s truly fortunate that the modernist plans of Cuban political leaders haven’t reached nearly as far as their original intentions. Thanks to this shortfall, what survives today is a culture of inventing, a well devised social networking community and an intransigent campesino tradition.

Thanks to those failings, today we have no mega-cities or nuclear plants – authentic time bombs in the scenario of an energy crisis.

These plans were frustrated, but they advanced fairly far. In a country where only half a century ago the majority of people was rural and where there presently doesn’t exist industrial or post-industrial development, it’s both astonishing and dangerous that only 14 percent of the population is agriculturally active.

True guajiros (campesinos) — those living in the margin of fossil fuels and building their own huts — are endangered, but they will be sources of practical wisdom when cities implode.

And as for our culture of crisis, we went through our last good training exercise in this just a couple of decades ago. It’s a shame that the arrival of oil from Venezuela caused us to throw away almost everything we learned back then. The majority of the blame belongs to…

The ruling elite

I believe that the technocrats and bureaucrats who run the country haven’t done much in terms of preparing for the crisis.

The “Energy Revolution,” initiated in 2005, promoted the conservation of combustible fuel and hard currency. Nevertheless, it devoted much of its resources to reviving the oil-dependent electrical system. It was evident that what our leaders had in mind was a scenario of cheap oil.

Today, oil-burning thermoelectric generating plants produce 93.9 percent of all electricity consumed in the country; in other words, we’re lining up our ducks on the same thin strand on which Chavez’s life is hanging.

As part of the Energy Revolution, little was done in terms of using renewable energy through the production of “green” electricity. There was a lot of talk and expectation, but we now have the numbers: Only 3.8 percent of our total electrical power comes from those sources.

In addition, the tendency was to import sophisticated and expensive equipment: wind turbines, an automatic plant for installation of solar panels, chic generators fed from landfills, a factory of solar heaters using empty glass cylinders, etc.

Thank God that they haven’t found a way to get a thermonuclear plant up and running, though not for a lack of trying. (see

All this crap is nice and efficient, but it reinforces our technological dependence and our dependence (as citizens) on the government. Yet in whatever case — especially in a crisis environment — both dependencies are very dangerous.

I consider it vital for us to adopt a policy that promotes the development of more modest techniques and practices, ones consistent with the resources and raw materials of each locality and easy to implement at the community and family level.

I’m thinking of solar dryers and stoves, biogas mini-plants, water collectors and filters, permaculture, local waste management, mini-hydro-generators, urban agriculture, and training about all these alternatives, etc.

Could it be that the technocrats and bureaucrats are waging the struggle with expensive, high-profile, extravagant projects rather than ensuring the future and sovereignty of the nation?

In their speeches they talk excitedly about growth and development by involving the country with multi-million dollar companies (e.g. the free trade zone at the Mariel port).

Meanwhile, the official press doesn’t miss a beat in playing its traditional mistress role to perfection. They serve to strengthen the optimistic and developmental trend that justifies the burning of oil and “sustainable (economic) development,” despite the contradiction.

Articles have appeared in national newspapers attempting to deny all of this, in line with the more recalcitrant oil companies in the face of the impending peak oil crisis.

Wouldn’t it be great if people started looking for information on their own and began reducing their oil-dependency (personally, within our families and community wide).

As a civilization and as a nation, we’re just coming off an oil binge that has lasted almost a century. Now the hangover is starting, but tomorrow we will feel better.




Erasmo Calzadilla

Erasmo Calzadilla: I find it difficult to introduce myself in public. I've tried many times but it doesn’t flow. I’m more less how I appear in my posts, add some unpresentable qualities and stir; that should do for a first approach. If you want to dig a little deeper, ask me for an appointment and wait for a reply.

Erasmo Calzadilla has 408 posts and counting. See all posts by Erasmo Calzadilla

4 thoughts on “Alternative Energy in Cuba: Hopefully I’m Wrong

  • As a true believer in science, technology and human capabilities, I prefer to place my hopes in future scientific developments, which will enable humanity to capture and use, the endless solar energy available in the southern hemisphere.

    Cuba needs a far-reaching reusable energy vision and a firm political commitment, which could lead to the creation of a huge research institute in Guantanamo/Santiago de Cuba, the region with the highest radiation index in the nation.

    Similar to the scientific Biotechnology Pole in Western Havana, which have yielded impressive international results, there is no doubt, that an energy research center in Oriente, could produce much faster, greater far-reaching results for humanity in a fraction of the development process required by the much lauded biotechnology.

    Financing this futuristic multi-million dollar, state of the art research center, which could be staffed by thousands of well paid, highly qualified national and international scientists, would require only, applying a 5% tax on alcoholic drinks, cigar products, garments, lodging, air, land and sea transportation, in addition to international donors from developing countries.

  • Both of these commenters use capitalist rationale and capitalist tecnological advances to address a problem in a poor socialist country. That’s rich. For Cuba to press ahead with any of these alternative energy ideas, they would have to first acquire the know-how, the start-up capital, and hire a well-trained and motivated team to operate the facilities. Good luck with that!

  • There is a new invention for greater photovoltaic efficiency that holds great promise. I believe the company that’s developing it is 3VSolar, or V3Solar. It was profiled recently in Grist Magazine on-line.

    It uses cone-shaped PV cells that capture sunlight without mechanical tracking. The apparatus spins its insides to control heat generation.

    I hope for all our sakes that this or other technological developments can make the conversion to solar in time to kill the oil industry.

    Thanks, Erasmo, for an excellent article.

  • There is the “fourth generation ” nuclear power plants in the works that are not only relatively clean but which use spent radioactive waste from older type nyuclear plants for fuel.
    You can look up more info on the net.

    Photovoltaic energy is expected to reach cost parity with fossil fuel plants within a couple of years and given the exponential growth of the associated technologies, will become increasingly cheaper to the point that we will have energy to waste within ten years. That plentiful ( the sun radiates tens of thousands of times more energy daily than we now use in the world in a year) supply of electricity will also make possible the cheap desalinization of sea water and the cracking of water to obtain the endless hydrogen which will power the totally clean burning cars of the future just ten years off.

    The future is better than you think and much closer than you can imagine.

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