HAVANA, June 29th This week the second International Renewable Energy Fair was held in Havana. The event, held at the Pabexpo fairgrounds with the presence of authorities, business people, academicians, and other specialists from some 30 countries, sought to promote the use of renewable sources in Cuba, with a view to radically transforming the country’s energy matrix.
Its holding coincided, moreover, with a particularly complex moment for the island, in the midst of an acute economic crisis — spurred on by the effects of the pandemic, United States sanctions and difficulties and internal deficiencies — and a tense electro-energy situation, with continuous breakdowns and outages of the system of generating units and long blackouts that have increased social unrest and have led the Cuban government to make the issue one of its priorities.
Government meetings, visits to plants, television reports on the work carried out in them, and public interventions by officials and even President Díaz-Canel himself, have become part, along with power cuts, of the day-to-day life of many Cubans, without a definitive recovery appearing to be in sight yet.
In this context, which many already compare with the darkest years of the so-called “Special Period,” the Cuban authorities have announced an update of their policy on renewable sources and the efficient use of energy, which aims to reach the future the 100% participation of these sources in the island’s electricity generation, as a measure to promote the country’s energy sovereignty and thus eliminate its heavy dependence on fossil fuels.
And, by the way, contribute to caring for the environment and the global confrontation with climate change, in accordance with the sustainable development agenda and the international instruments signed in this direction.
Even if it does not have a date for its fulfillment, it is, without a doubt, an extremely ambitious goal, even more so if we consider Cuba’s current economic and financial context, the obstacles and problems that have not infrequently weighed down the fulfillment of government plans and strategies, and the real progress that, in about eight years, since its implementation in 2014, the policy has had for the perspective development of this sector.
In a press conference prior to the opening of the fair, Cuban Minister of Energy and Mines Liván Arronte Cruz assured that “of Cuba’s current energy matrix, 95% of the generation is made with fossil fuels and 5% with renewable sources,” and he recognized that some projects related to the latter had suffered delays and stoppages due to non-payment and other difficulties in accessing the necessary resources, although others were still underway, in the process of being managed and in perspective.
For his part, Rosell Guerra Campaña, director of Renewable Energies of that ministry, responded at that time to a question from OnCuba that “what has been done (in this sector) is still not enough and is below what we anticipated for this stage.”
“We have not managed to meet the scope of the policy that renewable energy provided for this date. That is the reality,” confirmed the director, who, however, considered it necessary “to make it clear that a tremendous effort has been made and that the current contribution of clean energy in the country is significant.”
“Investments already made in this sector exceed 500 million dollars, a relevant figure considering the difficult economic situation of our country,” explained Guerra Campaña, for whom this data “reflects the commitment and priority of this issue for the Cuban government.”
The path traveled
Although all the desired progress has not been made, Cuba certainly has an already traveled path in the area of renewable energy, although this path is still light years away from the country’s potential for the development of this sector.
Its geographical position makes the island a privileged site for the use of solar energy, to which the bulk of projects have been dedicated to date, although efficient use of wind energy, forest biomass, biogas and small hydroelectric plants, generating sources that have been worked on for years, but in which much more can be done.
Even with what has not yet been done or taken advantage of, “in 2021, 994 GW/h were produced in Cuba with clean energy, which means that 272,858 tons of fuel were not consumed last year with that energy,” according to data provided to the press last week by Guerra Campaña, for whom, even though he did not offer a monetary estimate, “at the price of fuel, that figure represents a very important saving.”
He added that this also implies that 0.8 million tons of CO2 were not emitted into the atmosphere and highlighted the environmental value of the data, because “even though Cuba does not contribute large volumes of polluting gases to the atmosphere compared to other countries, the production of electricity in thermoelectric plants is one of the technologies that pollute the most.”
The director of Renewable Energies of the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MINEM) especially highlighted the contribution of photovoltaic solar energy, of which there are more than 70 parks installed in the country, and thanks to which, according to calculations made by Cuban specialists, “around 300,000 homes receive their electricity service at noon, which is the time when the first peak occurs in the load curve of the national electricity system and it is when these parks have the greatest generation capacity.”
The foregoing means, according to Guerra Campaña, that what is produced in this way is used to supply a Cuban province at that time, except for Havana due to its greater number of homes and inhabitants.
Other data shared with the press by the director in a meeting prior to the fair, reveal the installation to date of 1,188 solar pumps in the country, “especially for the water used in livestock, but also for the population and irrigation,” of a plan that is around 7,000; of 2,644 biogas plants, “some large ones that generate electricity for the electrical system, but the largest number are small, in the homes of farmers, especially pork producers”; and 34,000 solar water heaters, “a figure that is still small for our plans.”
In addition, he referred to the production of 12 MW of photovoltaic solar energy on the roofs of industries and state buildings, a figure that is planned to increase to 900 MW; the existence of more than 160,000 homes that receive electricity on the island thanks to the installation of photovoltaic solar modules; and about 600 electric vehicles that circulate in the country, which are supplied with solar panels and among which the fleets of enterprises such as ETECSA and Aguas de La Habana stand out, although the perspective is to continue increasing their presence on Cuban streets.
In all of the above, logically, the Cuban government has done its part, but it has also opted for foreign investment and international cooperation as ways not to overload the diminished state coffers and obtain the financing and expertise necessary for the development and exploitation of renewable sources.
But, even so, the path followed to date has not been free of stumbling blocks, postponed decisions, and internal and external obstacles, which have weighed down the government’s intentions and have prevented further progress in this area, even when the projections of the State policy will first target a 24% and then increase to a 37% share of clean sources in electricity generation by 2030.
The delay and paralysis of some projects due to non-payment — as the minister himself acknowledged —, the difficulties in the operation of the first bioelectric plant built in Cuba, the problems that have hampered the production of the only Cuban solar panel factory, and the postponed authorization — just at the end of July of last year — for individuals to import photovoltaic systems, their parts and pieces, free of customs duties, as well as the still insufficient incentives, in the opinion of analysts, for the installation of these systems by private and new economic actors, are some examples that not everything has gone smoothly.
The Fair and plans for the future
With the achievements, obstacles and challenges of this sector on the island, and with the current hardships of the national electricity system as a backdrop, the second edition of the International Renewable Energy Fair arrived. And, with it, the updating of the policy for the prospective development of these sources in the country, which, with the declared purpose of capitalizing 100% of the Cuban energy matrix, traces an ambitious, but necessary route to the future.
Not in vain, the minister of the branch himself affirmed during the meeting that this goal is “a strategic objective” for the country, which, he asserted, “requires the integration of the national economy.”
The first edition of the fair, held in 2018, brought together participants from a dozen countries as a prelude to the sustained growth of the event after it was held on a biennial basis, but the COVID-19 pandemic cut short the momentum, in addition to putting other setbacks for the Cuban economy and especially for projects related to renewable sources.
Thus, four years later, the event finally returned to the Cuban capital with the intention of promoting foreign investment in the renewable energy sector in Cuba and promoting the efficient use of the same for local development and in the industrial, services and residential sectors, according to what was reported by its organizers.
The fair, which was attended by representatives of some 30 nations such as China, India, Spain and Italy, is then an “important step in the effort in favor of the use of clean energy sources in Cuba and for the sake of the total conversion of the country’s energy matrix,” according to what was said to the press during the event by Rosell Guerra Campaña, who pondered the importance of the meeting to strengthen alliances, advance in negotiations with foreign investors, agree on credits and sign agreements, such as the one signed by the MINEM and the French Development Agency, and those reached between the Electricity Conglomerate (UNE) and several foreign companies to install some 4,000 MW of power in photovoltaic solar parks distributed throughout the island.
In total, the meeting established nine agreements: six letters of attention, two memorandums of understanding and a supply contract, as reported this Saturday at its closing.
Guerra Campaña also highlighted the role of the fair as a way to train and update knowledge on renewable sources, and strengthen the commitment and participation in this sphere of the national industry and other state entities, as well as to open the door to new economic actors — through the presence of several Cuban MSMEs, among them Renova in Camagüey, a pioneer of this activity on the island —, which he considered “can play an important role in the different territories and provinces” in tasks such as the assembly and maintenance of solar panels and other equipment.
The exhibition space, which was visited this Saturday by the Cuban president and prime minister, was joined by lectures, seminars, business tables and a sustainable energy forum, among other activities, such as the presentation of the Bioenergy Atlas of Cuba.
On the foreign side, along with companies from the sector and a dozen university centers, global and regional organizations also participated, such as the International Renewable Energy Agency, the International Solar Alliance, the International Wind Energy Association, the Green Climate Fund, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative Energy Alliance and the European Union, among others, who presented their experience on the subject and reaffirmed their willingness to collaborate with the island.
All of them, in one way or another, support and cooperate with the Cuban purpose to transform its energy matrix, a goal that has a new starting point in this fair and for which the Cuban authorities and experts have updated their plans.
“Right now a new technical-economic study of the national electricity system and of the country is being prepared with the vision not of reaching 24 or 37%, which were the percentages that were planned to progressively reach until 2030, but rather, as we have already said, completely change the energy matrix,” confirmed Guerra Campaña, who reported during the meeting on the first and significant estimates: reaching 13,000 MW in photovoltaic solar energy — a figure, in his opinion, “very big, but necessary” —, 800 MW in wind farms planned to be built in the north of eastern Cuba and to which another 1,000 MW can be added in the rest of the north coast of the island, and 712 MW in bioelectric plants.
“This is a study that is being prepared by Cuban specialists and being validated with international companies and experts. For this we have the support of Japanese companies with a lot of experience in this matter, which have taken the islands of Japan to 100% of the generation with renewable sources, as well as the advice of specialists from other nations,” explained the official.
In this sense, he referred to the technical study carried out by Cuban universities in collaboration with the Electricity Conglomerate and Japan on the specific case of the Isla de la Juventud, a territory in which it is planned to “substantially increase” the contribution of renewable energies and that will serve as a laboratory for what is intended to be implemented later throughout the country.
“We are an island, we are not interconnected with other systems, and we must take great care of the technical aspect because the electrical system has many complexities, to regulate its parameters, voltage, and frequency, and that is a process that we have to start studying and evaluating, that is why the study on the Isla de la Juventud is very important so that it serves as a reference for the big island,” said Guerra Campaña, who, while acknowledging that it is “an arduous task,” estimated that Cuba’s commitment to renewable sources was “fundamental.”
“Clean energy is the energy of the future. It must be this way, for the good of the planet and for the good of the economy. And in Cuba we must make further progress every day in this endeavor, which is also that of energy efficiency and sovereignty,” he asserted, in tune with what was later raised by President Díaz-Canel during his visit to Pabexpo on the last of the event.
“This has to be Cuba’s path,” said the president during his exchange with Cuban and foreign experts and businesspeople, in which he assured that “the most effective way” to resolve the energy issue for Cuba is the use of renewable energies, especially photovoltaic solar, and confirmed his government’s commitment to these sources.
Such considerations are clearly logical and necessary, in addition to publicly confirming the objectives and intentions of the Cuban authorities in this regard. However, beyond ongoing strategies and manifest plans, it will be up to time, once again, to have the last word.
It will be the one to confirm if everything planned on the subject can finally materialize, and if, through financing and the necessary actions, the ambitious route of renewable energies in Cuba will reach the desired destination or not.