HAVANA, June 26th Power generation in Cuba has been going through, at least for a couple of years, one of its darkest periods (pun intended) in recent decades.
The hole into which the island’s electrical system has fallen has become deeper and deeper and, although at times there have been partial reliefs, the situation still seems far from the improvement necessary to overcome this crisis that is jeopardizing the economy as a whole and pushing people’s patience to the limit.
Continuous breakdowns in the generating blocks, forced delays in maintenance, cyclical difficulties with the supply of fuel and even fires, accidents and natural disasters, have combined to tighten the rope of a system weighed down by lack of financing and longevity of its thermoelectric plants.
All this has resulted in an increase in blackouts (scheduled and surprise ones) throughout the country in this period. The population’s malaise is evident.
During the worst stage of the pandemic in Cuba, the increase in power cuts was one of the triggers for the anti-government protests on July 11, 2021. Then, other more localized protests, such as those in Nuevitas in August 2022 and those that followed in Havana after Hurricane Ian, also had blackouts as one of the sources of the conflict.
Last year the generation capacity deficit reached its most critical point, exceeding 1,000 MW and covering 24 hours a day on many occasions. Power cuts lasted 10 or more hours in a row in many parts of the island, and even in the capital, untouched in previous crises, “solidarity” blackouts” were scheduled, although shorter and more spaced than in the rest of the country.
Faced with this complex scenario, the Cuban government has drawn up some strategies and has tried to maneuver with the scarce resources at its disposal, in the midst of a severe economic crisis, aggravated by COVID-19 and United States sanctions. But its actions have been mostly aimed at alleviating the circumstantial crisis.
Among these solutions are the controversial Turkish floating power plants that began to arrive in the country in 2019 and for which Cuba pays a monthly rent. The amount paid is not exactly known, although it is presumed to be high. However, the Cuban government has defended them as good business.
“We are of the opinion that in the midst of the crisis we are experiencing, it was the best deal,” said last February Minister of Energy and Mines Vicente de la O Levy on the television program Mesa Redonda. Then, the incorporation of more mobile generation — that is, new floating power plants — to the island during 2023 was announced, although months later the departure of some of these vessels was reported.
But, even with the floating power plants and other alternatives — such as the incorporation of diesel and fuel engines —, uncertainty continues to hide the horizon.
After the improvement experienced towards the end of last year and the beginning of 2023, when blackouts due to deficits in generation capacity even disappeared, the advance of the year has brought new breakdowns, prolonged maintenance and other tensions. Thus, power outages have once again become a daily reality in many parts of the island.
What was achieved months ago, after the actions taken by the authorities and with the less stifling winter weather as an ally, today looks like a mirage in the face of a summer that promises — and is already having — oppressive temperatures. And although the electrical system has not yet reached the most critical extremes of 2022, many rightly wonder if the government strategy will be enough to avoid it.
A summer “in better conditions”?
At the end of last May, when power outages were once again wreaking havoc in the country and the fuel crisis further complicated the outlook, De la O Levy affirmed that “all the actions planned for the recovery of the national electrical system” had been fulfilled and it was expected that “the summer would be faced in better conditions.”
In an interview with Cubadebate, the minister referred to the work carried out in recent months by his ministry in the “worst conditions for the supply of spare parts, materials and raw materials due to not having access to financing or suppliers, due to the worsening of the blockade.”
Among them, he mentioned the maintenance of important generating units such as Felton 1 and Guiteras, the work on solving breakdowns such as the one that affected the Boca de Jaruco Energas plant, the return of power to the Mariel and Moa engine batteries, as well as “the recovery of more than 600 MW in distributed generation and the incorporation of new fuel oil engines (100 MW).”
In addition, he anticipated a recovery in oil supplies, a deficit that has not only caused long lines around the island’s gas stations and has affected transportation and other economic activities. It has also hit power generation, especially that which is not fed by heavy Cuban crude oil, even when diesel has been diverted from the industry for this purpose, as the government itself has acknowledged.
With all these actions and the resources invested in them, the head of Energy and Mines predicted “a considerable decrease in the effects” before the end of May. Almost a month later, we already know that it has not been exactly like that.
New breakdowns have occurred. A rupture even took the Antonio Guiteras plant — the country’s main unitary block, which in 2022 stopped operating more than 20 times — out of the system shortly after its entry and after more than 90 days under maintenance.
Fires and other unforeseen events have also occurred, like this Sunday’s at a substation in Pinar del Río, which caused blackouts in several towns in Pinar del Río and took out of operation unit 6 of the Mariel thermoelectric plant, the youngest in the country.
The truth is that the Cuban electrical system is still on tenterhooks and no matter how much partial maintenance and forced repairs are carried out, any positive forecast that is made about its performance runs the risk of crashing into a less encouraging reality if its background ills are not taken into account.
The problems in power generation in Cuba did not begin in 2021. The crisis that the electrical system has gone through in recent years is the result of a cumulative process of deterioration, delays and non-compliance with the required capital maintenance, punctual patching up instead of deep repairs, of decisions marked by presenteeism and spurred by crises and chronic shortages.
With such a “lag” it is undoubtedly complex to “make headway.” A look at the official data for power generation in the last five years on the island confirms its downward trend: between 2018 and 2022 it fell by almost a quarter, a dynamic that, according to economist Pedro Monreal, “is not compatible with economic recovery in the short term or with development in the long term.”
In this period, the collapse of the generation of generator sets, which produce electricity from diesel and fuel, was also appreciable. Under normal conditions, these groups are usually used to support the times of greatest demand, especially the night peak, but under exceptional conditions, they assume greater loads, which, in turn, increases their wear and fuel costs. This, in turn, forces them to stop when they reach the limit of useful hours they can have.
However, the greatest role in a generation — and also, consequently, in its deficit — is played by thermoelectric plants. These bear the heavy responsibility of being the base of the system, assuming around 45% of all generations, but with the handicap of doing so with an aging and overexploited infrastructure, which has been losing, moreover, part of its workforce.
These include units that will no longer generate again, such as the historic Tallapiedra plant in Havana and block 7 of the Mariel thermoelectric plant, affected by a fire that also endangered block 6, which was able to recover.
Also others from Felton, Nuevitas and Renté. In total, these five blocks out of operation entail for the system a whopping 615 MW of lost generation, around a quarter of its capacity.
Today Cuba has only 15 generation blocks available, which add up to an installed capacity of about 1,995 MW. However, breakdowns, partial maintenance, production limitations derived from age and other causes, prevent today from fully taking advantage of these potentialities.
Suffice it to say, that except for the aforementioned block 6 of Mariel, installed less than two years ago and stopped several months later as a result of the fire, the rest of the park is quite old.
Except for said unit and the two from the Lidio Ramón Pérez Thermoelectric Plant in Felton — one of which has been out for months due to another fire and whose reincorporation would mean 250 MW for the much-needed electrical system —, the rest already have more than three decades of exploitation, and even longer in some cases.
Each block has more than 200,000 hours of accumulated generation and significant delays in its commissioning, particularly in its capital maintenance.
With this diminished arsenal, it is not difficult to discover the reason for the repeated breakages, despite the effort and resources invested. Nor understanding that, with this old base, the island’s electrical system walks on a razor’s edge all the time, at the mercy of a (not so) unforeseen breakdown or overload, at any moment about to crumble the official forecasts and trigger the generation deficit and blackouts.
Oil, money, and matrix changes
The issue of electricity generation in Cuba has another unavoidable variable: oil. According to official data, 95% of the island’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels, which also includes gas derived from the production of national crude oil. Renewable sources, on the other hand, barely add up to 5% of the total.
As is known, Cuba must import an important part of the oil. And while the prices of crude oil in the international market have been rising, the Cuban coffers have suffered the devastating effect of the economic crisis, the pandemic and the U.S. sanctions. And this has had a rebounding effect on power generation.
“In 2019, the country spent between 150 and 170 million dollars to buy fuel; In 2021, spending amounted to 1.471 billion dollars and in 2022, 1.7 billion dollars were spent, at a time when there was no tourism or other sources of income,” the minister of energy and mines explained in February in this regard.
Fortunately, several Cuban thermoelectric plants use the island’s crude oil to produce electricity. But, unfortunately, this crude is heavier and with a percentage of sulfur (7-8%) well above the recommended one (1.5%)
. This increases its corrosiveness and, therefore, the damage it causes in the generating plants, which, in turn, would require more maintenance and replacement of parts than Cuba can afford.
In this hellish circle of breakdowns, stoppages, blackouts and short-term solutions, a possible future improvement requires money. A lot of money.
Money to gradually replace obsolete or damaged equipment, to give generating plants the capital maintenance they need instead of postponing them or doing express versions, to maintain the vitality of the system even if some of its largest blocks are out for months to undergo a capital repair.
According to De la O Levy, each year some 250 million dollars are needed to sustain the Cuban electrical system under normal conditions, without counting the expenses for the purchase of fuel.
But it seems clear that in order to break its current negative dynamics and project its future stability, with the actions outlined in the previous paragraph and others that would include not only thermoelectric plants and diesel and fuel engines but also subunits and connection lines, much more would missing.
By just doing some quick math and looking at the Cuban economy today, the magnitude of such an enterprise is evident.
The credit of 1.2 billion euros that Russia granted to Cuba more than seven years ago for the construction of thermoelectric plants is still pending. In theory, this money was going to allow adding 800 MW to the Cuban electrical system, distributed in four new generating blocks. However, to date it remains unused.
As explained by Cuban Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Tatiana Amarán last year, Cuba had not been able to dispose of the 10% advance payment that it was due to pay in the project due to the difficulties that the island’s economy has faced in recent years. “The money from that credit was not used for anything. We simply have not been able to resume the project,” the official stated then.
With that precedent, little remains to be said. Although perhaps now that the island is experiencing a renewed and significant rapprochement with Moscow, and is also testing other emerging powers such as Turkey, news can be expected in this direction.
In any case, the definitive solution to the island’s power shortages could be within reach and without the need to use oil. Renewable energies, such as solar energy — something that is never lacking in Cuba —, could well be the long-awaited remedy, as the authorities themselves have recognized. Although, at least for now, they are not cheap either
“We have carried out an analysis and Cuba can be self-sustaining without fossil fuels,” the minister assured months ago. In addition, he explained that “setting up a 100 Megawatt or 1,000 Megawatt photovoltaic park is easier than maintaining the Guiteras Thermoelectric Plant, although the initial investments are very expensive.”
In this sense, he noted that the island’s investment levels for this at the moment “are not that great” and explained that, according to state planning, “the source of financing for renewable energy is the savings of fuel.”
Seen this way, in the midst of the current difficulties that the Cuban economy is going through, the aim of reaching 100% participation of these sources in the island’s power generation in the future sounds, for now, like science fiction. However, the change in the energy matrix, in addition to its environmental benefits, could also have a significant long-term impact in socioeconomic terms.
In perspective, in an ideal scenario, green energies could finally be the light at the end of the tunnel for power generation in Cuba.
But, for the moment, with the burden of the current crisis on our backs, it is the summer and the possible blackouts in the midst of its heat and school vacations where government plans are pointing right now and also where all Cubans are looking, crossing their fingers.