A Weed that Could Bring Cuba Power

Fernando Ravsberg

Marabu bush that could be used for generating electric power. Photo: wikipedia.org

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.

6 thoughts on “A Weed that Could Bring Cuba Power

  • Dear friends, all your previous comments are relatively valid and contributing.
    But I would like to introduce our Biomass Gasification Engine System (www.peako.net) and share with you :
    (1) Marabu is a kind of agricultural waste which have no economic value to the local community at this stage;
    (2) The logistic and collection of Marabu is laborous and cost intensive;
    (3) De-centralized power system of about 1~2MW using Gasification technology is suggested;
    (4) Marabu must be treated before it can be used in any power generation, i.e. shredded and dried;
    (5) Steam power plant is not suggested unless it’s >6MW; But the huge logistic cost will kill the project;
    If you are interested to discuss further, please feedback your comment or email to [email protected].

  • Amid Raúl Castro’s comment on marabú: You say, ” I don’t have the information or knowledge as to why people are not advancing in this direction”…let me tell you. Very little is done on anything on a national level for several reasons, one is that no one single or very small group of people want to take responsibility for big decisions because of the risk in loss of living standards as consequence for failure. This only leaves the local level, and at the local rural level, there are no resources (finance) to start anything. Finance is a non-existent concept.

    Henry G. Delforn
    Carpinteria, CA

  • Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

    I would definitely burn as much marabu as possible.

    Probably plant something better afterwards though, it is not a naturally occurring plant there, it’s invasive. There are some much more favourable crops to grow.

    Burning is organic. The CO2 came out of the air originally. It’s not releasing fossil carbon in profligate quantities as in coal electricity or petroleum in a 500kW car to buy a pack of cigarettes. It’s incinerating a weed.

    Would be great to build a mobile version, which could tour the place eating up the nasty weeds, leaving behind tilled farm land.

    It’s hardly hi-tech stuff. Could run on steam power.

  • Above comments lack a basic knowledge in several categories: forestry, CO2 emissions, and Cuba in general.

    First, as mentioned partialy in one of the comments, to say that marabu is a source is to state the obvious. EVRY tree is a potential source of power. Wood burns… Not really a mind-blowing discovery. The second problem here is the fact that burning wood creates more CO2 emitted into the air. As if we aren’t doing enough of that already, we need more. ANd then we (the so-called “developed” countries) criticise the poor for burning the “dirty” fuels… They can never win, now can they?

    And the third, one can already buy neon energy-saving lamps. In fact the government is giving them away to people in an attempt to save electricity where ever they can. What is needed is for cuban politicians to stop wanking whole day and start managing their country. And foreigners to do the same too. Stop wanking and let the Cubans manage their country alone. Oh, and for the stupid yaks (the biggest wankers in the world) to leave alone other countries which want to trade with Cuba. usanian stupidity is legendary and it is only matched with their paranoid fear of anything that dares to be different.

    Ironically, the concept of democracy, so often on usanian thin lips includes the fact that people are allowed to be different… I appears t look like usanian idiots are ok with people being diffrent, as long as they do what usanians do and think what usanians think. Hooray….

  • A major problem in converting marabu into electricity seems to be in getting the harvested weed from the field to the point of combustion. The state would need to offer employee-owned cooperatives and/or private individuals a set price by weight for delivered marabu.

    If the weed can be cut, loaded onto trucks, and transported to the electric power generating station (sugar mills?) at a livable profit above labor-equipment-fuel, then it might truly be a viable resource for electricity.

    If marabu cannot be delivered at a meaningful profit to those who do the work, it probably is not a viable resource.

    In the U.S. state of Texas there is a problem of the mesquite tree taking over vast expanses of range land. But just because there exist vast forest of this “weed” tree does not mean it is a viable economic resource. There has to be a market for the tree, and harvesting it would have to be worth someone’s labor, equipment & fuel, etc. It would seem that the same is true of the marabu.

    Personally, I think Cuba’s electricity shortage can be amply supplied by harvesting the sunshine. (This is what makes the marabu, anyway!) Cuba could invest in concentrated solar power at sea level, run steam generators with the de-salted steam, then pipe the naturally rising steam to higher elevations for agricultural water.

    This sort of thing however would require someone in power to use their head for something other than a hat-rack!

  • I wish to express my deepest gratitude to Mr. Ravsberg for his very important and timely article, highlighting existing and unused energy resources, that are readily available to the Cuban people.

    With the looming threat of electrical supply shortage during the summer months, it should not be difficult to assemble a mecanized brigade to harvest marabu fields, transport, re-start a couple of idle sugar mills and begin pumping badly needed additional Kilowatts into the system.

    So far, the politically correct method of cutting of electricity for an hour or two, have not addressed the problem, while harming sensitive equipment through electrical surge, human discomfort and work reduction in the workplace.

    Reputable research have established that 50-60% of electric consumption is used for warming water. Based upon these estimates, we have proposed installing 5-10,000 solar water heater per year and install at least 5,000 homes per year with photovoltaic panels. A yearly exponential installation growth through sales of these equipment in hard currencies to tens of thousands of Cubans working abroad, in corporations, family remittances or with other means of access to hard currency, would make a substantial dent in the day-to-day consumption.

    Replacing conventional mercury or sodium street lightening system with energy free photovoltaic panels and LED lightening, is a worthy investiment towards energy sufficiency.

    Solving this intractable problem once and for all, is within vision and reach.

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