The image on the back of a Cuban $10 peso bill is a line drawing of a diesel-fired generator, a line worker, overhead high-voltage electric transmission, oil refineries, two windmills and a modern pickup truck (not American, of course).
Above that image is the phrase “REVOLUCION ENERGETICA,” or energy revolution.
Cuba clearly needs an energy revolution – or at least a significant transition — as I recently saw on a two-week trip to the largest Caribbean nation. The trip ironically began the day after President Obama announced new, relaxed rules for American travelers, allegedly in effect the day we arrived in Cuba on Jan.15. Our trip had been arranged months before Obama’s announcement.
Cuba is a beautiful country with welcoming people, a warm climate, and an eclectic culture. It has great promise and big opportunities, particularly if relations with the U.S. become normal after more than 50 years of American Cold War rigidity. But Cuba also has big problems to overcome with its electrical system.
First is the nature of the country itself. Cuba is a big country, the largest of the Caribbean islands, at 110,000 square meters, or slightly smaller than Pennsylvania. Cuba is predominantly rural and agricultural. The population is 11 million, compared to Pennsylvania’s 13 million. With 2.1 million inhabitants, Havana is by far the largest city (and one of the most beautiful in the world to my mind).
The Cuban cities we visited — Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Havana in that order — had adequate, reliable power while we were there and that appears to be the normal case. But as we moved into more rural areas such as the Bay of Pigs area and Zapata National Park we experienced several blackouts starting at about the start of the workday and lasting several hours. The days were warm but not hot and the skies were blue. The same was true in Soroa in western Cuba’s mountains, although the blackouts were not as pronounced as our hotel had backup generation. It kicked on briefly several times.
According to the CIA’s World Factbook, Cuba has about 6 GW of installed generating capacity, with 99.3% coming from oil and 0.6% from hydro, with the remaining 0.1% from other renewables. During our travels in Cuba, we saw solar hot water in several places but no evidence of solar photovoltaic arrays or wind power.
The cities have their own electrical problems, mostly related to distribution. The state of wiring is so bad it is scary. Power from overhead distribution lines often reaches consumers by unsupported lines to unprotected, old fashioned knob fuses. From the fuses it is common to see the wires –again unprotected –reach inside buildings by holes bashed through the walls or snaked through a doorway.
While it is a poor country by western standards, life in Cuba is good compared to the poverty of Africa and Asia. The country has an excellent educational system although it often lacks teaching material and other resources. Cuba has a literacy rate of 99.8%, according to the CIA, comparable to the U.S. at 99%. The public health system is advanced (although doctors are leaving because they can make more money elsewhere). Cuba’s life expectancy is 78 years, again comparable to the U.S. No one in Cuba goes hungry. The country has a vibrant cultural scene, particularly music, painting, and sculpture, which we witnessed, and a love of sports, where baseball is the national pastime.
The Cuba tourist industry is booming and has become a major factor in the Cuban economy. Americans have been traveling to Cuba in large numbers well before Obama’s recent move. And that’s going to be both a boon to Cuba and a challenge. When Americans can travel to Cuba freely and U.S. investors can take advantage of Cuban opportunities, the country could see an economic lift the likes of which it has not witnessed in over half a century. That will put pressure on an already challenged electricity infrastructure. Cuba will have to find a way to make and deliver electricity more efficiently and reliably than is the case today.