Solar, wind energy a missed opportunity for Cuba

Thursday - 7/5/2012, 3:09pm EDT

Associated Press

RAMON GORDO, Cuba (AP) - The sleepy country setting that farmer Juan Alonso calls home hasn't changed much since he was born 74 years ago, with the two rustic wooden houses nestled among palm trees against a backdrop of green hills and clear skies.

Incongruously perched atop the homes are the only visual clues that his 150-acre (60-hectare) farm inhabits the 21st century: the gleaming solar panels that revolutionized the lives of Alonso and his family.

"Just imagine, you toil all day in the field and then when you get home you have to grope around doing things with a gas lantern, with a torch to illuminate the patio at night," Alonso said, describing life during decades past. Now his family has electric lights, a television and a DVD player. "It's a change as radical as night to day."

Cuba is proud of its success in using alternative energy to bring electricity to isolated hamlets like Ramon Gordo, 90 miles (150 kilometers) west of Havana. Some 2,000 schools and at least 400 hospitals are lit up by solar panels in rural areas not plugged into the national grid. But scientists say the island, blessed with year-around sunshine and sea breezes but plagued with chronic energy shortages, could be doing much more on the national level, and that its communist government is missing a golden opportunity to reduce its dependence on subsidized oil from uber-ally Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez is sick with cancer.

It is vital that Cuba expand its energy horizons "so it doesn't remain at the mercy of political changes in the region that could affect it adversely," said Judith Cherni, an alternative energy expert at the Imperial College London Center for Environmental Policy.

The urgency to find alternative energy sources was driven home last month when an exploratory offshore oil well drilled by Spanish company Repsol turned out to be dry, a setback to Cuba's hopes for a big strike that could be a boon for the limping economy, though exploration continues.

Despite recent essays by revolutionary hero Fidel Castro on impending global catastrophe due to climate change, Cuba gets just 3.8 percent of its electricity from renewables, a pittance even by regional standards and far behind global leaders.

In the nearby Dominican Republic, where a 2007 law establishes tax breaks for investment in alternative energy, renewables account for 14 percent of electrical generation. Germany, the gold standard for high-tech green energy, gets 20 percent of its considerably larger electrical consumption from renewables, mostly from wind.

The reality in Cuba today is that wind and solar energy sources are almost exclusively for local consumption and there has been little attempt to expand them to augment the national grid, which is powered mostly by fossil fuels. Scientists say the country lacks the investment and expertise for such a move.

Around the region, examples abound for Cuba to emulate. Central American nations are using hydroelectric facilities to harness the power of rivers. Caribbean islands are passing laws stimulating foreign investment in renewables. Wind and solar farms are popping up where viable. Faraway in Europe, and nearby in the United States, individuals with solar panels can get paid for any extra energy they generate that goes back into the grid.

"Possessing apt natural resources to generate energies is a tremendous boon, but that alone is not enough to create energy," said Cherni.

Another obstacle to boosting renewable energy is a stubbornly fixed mindset that equates development with oil.

Memories are still vivid here of the "Special Period" of the 1990s, when the island's economy tanked with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, ushering in years of hunger, prolonged blackouts and fuel shortages. People thumbed rides to work on the back of bicycles as cars sat idle and empty-tanked.

To cope, Cuba began installing its first solar panels, building small hydroelectric plants, restoring old windmills and extracting gas from animal waste.

But after Chavez's election in 1998 in oil-rich Venezuela, Cuba once again embraced fossil fuels wholeheartedly with the appearance of a new benefactor and ideological ally willing to help keep the lights on. Today Caracas provides nearly half Cuba's petroleum needs, shipping about 100,000 barrels of oil a day to the island on beneficial terms while Cuba sends doctors and technical advisers to Venezuela.

"Cuba is a nation that is dependent on oil, yes, but in addition the culture of its leaders and technicians, of its common citizens, is one of fossil fuels," said Alejandro Montesinos, a renewable energy expert at Cubasolar, the island's chief NGO for sustainable energy.