HAVANA TIMES, June 24 – Looking through Cuban periodicals on the Internet, I again ran into calls for conserving electric energy, something that is apparently so vital that a journalist launched the dramatic slogan “conservation or death,” through dropping the standard ending “venceremos” (we shall be victorious).
The matter concerned me so much that [on a recent trip] I tried to find out in Spain what are the energy alternatives of a country that —like Cuba— has little petroleum, no large rivers and insufficient resources to construct a nuclear power plant.
I finally identified a specialist on renewable energy, a sector in which this country is a leader. In a single conversation, this individual changed my opinion completely about the marabu, that thorny bush that is devouring Cuban agricultural fields.
He explained to me that in Spain they look at Cuba with envy given the island’s abundant marabu “plantations.” With these, islanders could generate electric power by building biomass plants and even take advantage of the generating capacities of sugar mills.
My surprise was even greater when he told me this was nothing new, that for 10 years the University of Camaguey, Cuba has been carrying out a study that confirms the fact that that the island has enough biomass to undertake such an initiative.
Researchers in that province even found a local tract of land —around 140,000 acres— full of the marabu bushes and that would be ideal for locating a biomass plant. In this area are also located sugar mills with the capacity for generating electricity.
How it would work
The idea is to divide the field into three parts, with the aim of rotating them in order to always have the needed quantity of marabu kindling on hand. Through this, electric power production would be enough to supply the whole province of Camagüey.
One of the researchers, Dr. Rafael Leyva, told the Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelde a year ago that, “We’ll be able to generate up to 13 megawatts based on the harvesting of 25 acres of marabu daily, with each acre representing 35 tons of the potential resource.”
Local Camagüey residents have adapted a cane-cutting machine for harvesting marabu, which can be cut much more quickly. However, in that they’re using Russian equipment, it remains to be seen whether they will spend more resources than they produce.
A biomass plant would cost around 15 million euros and would save the country 45,000 tons (over 300,000 barrels) of petroleum annually. Like any form of renewable energy, it winds up being somewhat more expensive than traditional sources, but it would allow Cuba to advance along the road to energy self-sufficiency.
Around the world, the great problem with these plants is the shortage of biomass to make them feasible. Cuba is an exception. Thanks to the “contribution” realized over decades by state-owned farms, marabu weed plants occupy close to five million acres.
The Spanish expert explained that the initiative could begin even with a minimum investment using the existing capacity of a few sugar mills, a work crew with portable electric saws and a machine for cutting the bushes into small pieces.
At first blush the approach seems a brilliant idea. Sugar mills don’t operate most of the year, and some have facilities to generate energy and are tied into the national electric grid.
So the pieces of the puzzle fit even better, it turns out that the mills are at a standstill during the summer, the season in which electric consumption goes through the roof across the whole country as a result of the oppressive tropical heat.
Looking at the situation from the outside, it’s difficult to understand why State agencies don’t put these ideas into practice: the Ministry of Basic Industry controls electric generation, the Agriculture ministry owns the marabu, and the Sugar Ministry manages the sugar refineries.
I’m not trying to criticize anyone, because the fact is I don’t have the information or knowledge as to why people are not advancing in this direction. Notwithstanding, when the government announces that the country needs to conserve oil, one has to wonder what becomes of these types of initiatives.
What better way is there to save energy resources than burning the bothersome marabu plant? Imagine; the study indicates that the combustion of three tons of this bush produces a quantity of electric energy equivalent to that generated by one ton of petroleum.
How ironic it would be at the end of the day if the reviled marabu ended up being Cuba’s primary source of fuel.
An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.