Bursting Cuba’s Sugar Cane Biomass Bubble

Erasmo Calzadilla

Sugar cane. Photo: ecured.cu

HAVANA TIMES — What’s really going on with renewable sources of energy in Cuba?  The island’s official press is brimming with optimism in this connection, but, do we actually have reason to be so positive?

I will start this post with one of the most widely divulged “half-truths”. According to Conrado Moreno, a high-level Cuban government expert and official, “during 2011, 78.4 percent of the total primary energy output came from fossil fuels and 21.6 percent was produced using renewable sources of energy.”

During a presentation on the subject, Projects Vice-President for CUBASOLAR Julio Torres Martinez said:

“In Cuba, sugar cane is an ideal means of intensively exploiting renewable sources of energy. This is owed to the high caloric content of bagasse, which has met as much as 30 percent of the country’s energy demand.”

After reading these two comments, one walks away with the reassuring sense that we’re on the right track, as deriving 30 percent of the country’s primary energy from renewable sources is a magnificent ranking. It is so magnificent, in fact, that it is a little hard to believe. How did humble Cuba achieve this, when countries with the highest indices of development in this area barely make it to 10 percent? I smell a rat here, and we’re going to find it.

To discover where the trick is, we’ll have to wade through some data published by Cuba’s National Statistics and Information Bureau (ONEI) and crunch some numbers. The first step is breaking down the percentage of energy produced in Cuba using renewable energy sources (RES), on the basis of a report for 2010 (1).

RES Contribution (thousands of tons of oil) %
Biomass 938.5 97.7
Others 20.9 2,3
Total 959.8 100

The percentages column (courtesy of yours truly) immediately raises suspicions. The amount of energy derived from biomass is so huge compared to all other sources that it could only be the result of fraudulent information.

We know that Cuban biomass is primarily made up of sugar industry (SI) sub-products. Let’s follow that trail.

Sugar Industry Energy Balance

Is so much energy actually produced using sugar cane biomass? The only way to find out is to draw up an energy balance for Cuba’s sugar industry.

Don’t worry, it won’t be complicated. We will arrange the system’s inputs and outputs in such a way as to arrive at a simplified and general formula.

We’ll start with the inputs, the energy consumed by the SI:

  • Fossil fuels. In 2010, the SI consumed some 190 thousand tons of oil (2). Let us assume we are dealing with tons equivalent (Tep), which is a standard energy unit.
  • Electricity. ONEI reports that, during this period, the SI consumed 295 Gw.h.
  • We mustn’t forget the contribution of the sun (we won’t need to quantify it, in our case).

Let us now look at the output:

  • Most of the energy produced by the SI is contained in sugar. We’re not going to quantify it either.
  • Then we have electricity, produced using biomass. According to ONEI, the said industry generated 446 GW.h. that year.

Let us now introduce these data into an equation. The inputs are on the left and the outputs on the right. Here it goes:

Sun + 190 thousand Tep + 295 Gw.h = sugar + 446 GW.h

We have electricity at either side of this equation because the SI both consumes and produces electricity. Placing all of the units of GW.h on one side of the equation and then subtracting, we get:

Sun + 190 thousand Tep = sugar +  151 GW.h

Those eager to present us with optimistic results stop precisely at this point. The trick consists in presenting the 151 GW.h as net electrical energy produced using biomass. That trickle of electricity that sugar refineries afford the country’s electrical network has been milked for all its worth – but let us look at the balance to understand where it is really coming from.

Tep and GW.h are two different ways of expressing energy amounts, and each can be converted into the other unit. Since every GW.h is equivalent to 86 Tep, 151 GW.h represent some 13 thousand tons of oil equivalent. Introducing these numbers into our equation, we get:

Sun + 190 thousand Tep = sugar + 13 thousand Tep

13 represents 6.8 percent of 190. That is to say, a very small percentage of the energy invested is recovered from biomass.

Let us now place all of our Tep numbers on one side of the equation and simplify the formula one last time. The final equation is:

Sol + 177 thousand Tep = sugar

Interpreting the Results

After converting our units and simplifying the equation, what we find is that the only net energy produced by the SI is that contained in its sweet sugar crystals, no more, no less. The energy produced using biomass, derived from the sun and oil invested, is reintegrated entirely into the system.

Bursting the Bubble

To arrive at the highly inflated figure of 21 to 30 percent of primary energy produced using renewable sources, experts have lied in different ways.

They are deceiving us, conceptually, by including industrial biomass as a primary source of energy, when, in truth, it depends in great measure on oil (making it more of a secondary source of energy).

They are lying in the same way when they include it among renewable sources of energy – the clean, environmentally friendly kind that do not emit greenhouse gases, I mean.

They are deceiving us at the quantitative level when they claim that all of the sub-products of the harvest are optimally exploited as a source of energy – when we know this is not the case.

The crudest and most propagandistic lie, however, is that the sugar industry is self-sufficient and even produces energy. We’ve demonstrated that this is entirely false. The percentage of sugar cane biomass that is actually used to produce energy covers only a miniscule percentage of our energy spending.

We thus arrive at our conclusion. After clearing away the straw and bagasse, we’ve come upon the raw reality: in Cuba, not even 3 percent of the country’s primary energy is produced using RES. Is this the figure the experts and press hope to conceal under a pile of sugar cane?

I am not bursting this bubble out of sheer pleasure. My intention, rather, is to demonstrate how precarious the situation is in this area.

When fossil fuel shortages and/or the political crisis in Venezuela hit our fuel supplies, we’re going to have a really tough time. So, isn’t it better to know the truth and act accordingly?


  1. I used ONEI data for 2010 because this is the last report that has the tables I need up to date. The situation hasn’t changed considerably since.
  2. According to ONEI, 102,600 tons of diesel and 87,900 tons of fuel oil were used by the sugar industry. Adding these two figures, we get 190,400 tons of refined oil, which I rounded off to 190 thousand to simplify calculations.

13 thoughts on “Bursting Cuba’s Sugar Cane Biomass Bubble

  • Swing and a miss, John.

    The Chinese super computer was built from American science & technology:

    “The machine runs on Kylin Linux, an operating system developed by teams at the National University for Defense Technology, and is built of a staggeringly large system. Dongarra’s report mentions touring “the computer room” that includes Intel Ivy Bridge and Xeon Phi processors, and lots of them. “There are 32,000 Intel Ivy Bridge Xeon sockets and 48,000 Xeon Phi boards for a total of 3,120,000 cores.”

    So while it is an admirable accomplishment, it would not have be possible without parts designed & manufactured by Intel, an American capitalist corporation.

  • I assure you John, I have a very good idea of the advances in science & technology in the energy sector.

    Aluminum smelting requires high energy inputs. Like I said, solar power will not be cheap, nor clean, nor will it provide all the energy the world will need.

    Your facts are wrong. Estimates for when the world reaches the “peak oil” point when 50% of all known fossil fuel reserves have been consumed, is between 50 & 70 years.


    Eventually, we will need to shift off fossil fuels to some other form of energy. The innovation, motivation and capital required to do so will come from free democratic capitalist societies, not from moribund, unfree socialist dictatorships.

  • Aluminum is one of the most abundant substances on the planet and the bulk of metal used in the frames for solar are all aluminum .
    There are many different ways to store solar electricity besides batteries .
    And of course, you have no concept of the advances being made in a great many technologies that will lead to an age of abundant energy in a few short decades.
    The new and safer nuclear plants, geo-thermal , wind can help bridge the time gap between now and that 20 or so years until super-human AI can come up with clean abundant power sources.
    We have maybe 20-30 years of fossil fuels left and a switch must be made as soon as possible.
    Again , fossil, fuels create the CO2 that will doom the planet and sadly within that same 20-30 year time frame and if we don’t switch………..

  • My statistics are not invalid. Do you think solar panels grow on trees?

    The manufacture of solar panels requires the input of energy and raw materials. The industry processes involved in producing solar panels, batteries, and support structures all create wastes and pollution. There is no such thing as a free, clean non-polluting energy source.

    To replace all fossil fuels with solar panels would require massive increase in the number of solar panel installations around the world, requiring several trillions of dollars of investment. The industrial capacity required to build such a solar capacity would itself produce huge amounts of pollution. The electrical grid would have to be expanded to transport the huge increase in electricity, requiring a huge expansion of mining for copper, iron, aluminum and other metals used in the electrical grid. The huge increase in batteries required to store the solar power would require a huge increase in the mining and processing of lithium and other metal required for that technology. And so on…

    Once again, utopians such as yourself fail to think through the real costs, consequences and ramifications of their flights of fancy.

  • About the need for capitalism to create new technologies etc:
    At present the Chinese under a STATE-RUN centrally planned program have developed the fastest computer in the world , the Tien-he 2 which operates at 33.8 petaflops .
    This is far faster than IBM’s or other capitalist developers have .
    The Chinese will have a smarter-than-human computer within seven years at the rate they are going and the first nation to reach that will have POTENTIAL advantages in every field : economical, militarily and things we cannot now even imagine
    The present U.S. government seems to think of the threats to U.S. power/hegemony/empire as coming from terrorists, the Russians, the Muslim world but, if any nation, it will be the Chinese who will do the U.S. with their brain power developed under a centrally-planned and non-capitalist program.

  • Your costs for solar , like those of all those who want to just use fossil fuels , never include the fact that there are few if any pollutant costs involved while the CO2 , mercury poisoning, mining and drilling disasters that are the result of burning fossil fuels push the cost of these fuels far beyond those of solar and wind.
    Those fossil fuel costs that you are using for comparison with solar energy do not include the costs of all the pollution and accidents.
    Your statistics therefore are totally invalid

  • Photovoltaic and solar are very different technologies than burning biomass, or ethanol production.

    The ROI for solar is not at the break-even point yet, when one considers the initial investment and replacement costs. But with technological improvements, one day solar will be a cost effective energy source. Note than both the US & Germany poured hundreds of millions into failed attempts to jump-start the solar energy panel business. Even China is cutting back on their state subsidies for the solar panel industry.

    Need i point out that the scientific discovers and technological developments have come from capitalism, not from socialism (of any variety, however defined). Innovation flourishes in an environment which rewards individual initiative and creativity.

    The Cuban government is constantly peddling these green energy boondoggles to attract needed capital and expertise precisely because their failed political & economic system destroys wealth creation and punishes innovative thinking.

  • Photovoltaic and solar thermal are both sciences that are leapfrogging due to the constant invention of newer and ever-more efficient materials used in the panels .
    Solar has already come even with fossil fuel costs in India’s electrical production and certainly and easily by 2020 a much larger and ever increasing proportion of electricity will be derived from solar in the entire world. .
    Of course those on the paleolithic right having been gulled by the corporate media, believe that fossil fuels will be around forever and that science does not exist or progress.

  • So-called “green” energy scams are like candy to gullible lefties. They just can’t resist it. And thanks to their limited reality checking skills, they don’t realize it’s a scam.

  • It takes energy inputs to grow & harvest sugar cane. These energy inputs exceed the amount of energy one can get out of the waste products. At best, the use of biomass for energy production will offset some fraction of the total energy consumed in producing the sugar cane. But it will never break even on the energy budget.

  • This seems quite complicated. Large sugar refineries in the US and elsewhere have long been producing substantial amounts of electricity for their own operations and neighboring customers by burning bagasse, a waste product from processing. In addition, the leaves and cuttings of sugar cane can be mechanically harvested (in the US the L&C are burned off in short, spectacular fires) and used as fuel for biomass energy production. Common sense dictates using rather than wasting both bagasse and L&C.

  • Griffin, I continue to marvel at the gullibility of foreign media and of that certain segment of the far left that continue to swallow “the next great thing” that seems to come out of the Castro propaganda machine every few years. The list of new technologies, or new products or even new cows that will save Cuba seems never-ending! Remember how oil discovered in the Caribbean was going to save the revolution? Every one of these boondoggles eventually comes to no end. My Cuban family simply roll their eyes, sigh and say out loud, “Here we go again”. The analysis above debunks the propaganda and yet makes clear that the calculations do not add up to meet the public pronouncements. Yet the Castros continue to invent these campaigns. Amazing!

  • Bravo! That is a very well researched and intelligent examination of the biomass boondoggle. Nobody has broken even yet on the energy budget for producing energy from biomass. It takes more energy to grow, harvest, deliver and convert biomass into energy that the energy it produces. The result is a negative net energy output.

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