By Dan Vermeer, Associate Professor of the Practice and Executive Director, EDGE
Cuba’s energy infrastructure, like its fleet of pre-1959 vintage American cars, is an amalgam of old and new, based on efforts to evolve the system with limited resources. A decentralized network consisting mostly of diesel and fuel oil generators is connected to a grid that, despite many transmission upgrades, has resulted in periodic outages and inefficiencies. To make matters worse, Cuba’s system has depended heavily on fuel imports, first from the Soviet Union and then from Venezuela.
Since the Soviet era, Cuba has worked hard to implement an ambitious “Energy Revolution” to modernize their energy system, with some success. With the prospects of new markets opening and increasing tourism, however, Cuba recognizes the imperative to create a new energy system to will meet their future needs. The Cuban government has announced plans to generate 24% of the country’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030 – up from around 4% today. In addition, Cuba aspires to update their grid, introduce more efficient technologies, and increase capacity to meet rapidly growing demand. To achieve this goal, Cuba must not only introduce new technologies, but also creating an enabling policy environment and attract significant investment for external sources.
There’s much to be learned in coming years about how a country like Cuba can realize a rapid transformation of their energy system. To this end, I traveled to Cuba in May with a group of American researchers, investors, and entrepreneurs to participate in a week-long exploration of Cuba’s energy transition. This “learning journey,” organized in partnership between EDGE and Cuba Strategies Inc., included participation in the International Conference on Renewable Energy, Energy Saving and Energy Education (CIER 2017) in Havana on May 31-June 2, organized by Cuba’s Center for the Study of Renewable Energy Technologies (CETER).
The goals of this learning journey were to: 1) have a dialogue with Cuban stakeholders about critical success factors for the energy transition; 2) learn from Cuban energy and sustainability leaders about opportunities and barriers to improving Cuba’s energy, food, and transport systems; and 3) define specific opportunities for partnership and collaboration between the U.S. and Cuba on these issues.
A few of the trip highlights and my takeaways are summarized below.
Envisioning Cuba’s energy future
In November 2016, back in the U.S., we hosted Duke University’s annual global case competition, the Energy in Emerging Markets Case Competition, with a focus on Cuba. The competition attracted over 30 teams of graduate students from business schools in the U.S., Canada, and Hong Kong, and 12 finalists were asked to submit written proposals addressing the question: What vision should guide Cuba’s energy infrastructure investment and development to meet its future needs?
The prize for the winning team, five students from Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), was the opportunity to travel to Cuba to share their proposal for integrating natural gas and renewable infrastructure, along with the policy reforms needed to make investment in this new infrastructure possible, with Cuban decision-makers. The team and I gave presentations at the CIER 2017 Conference in Havana, stressing the interdependence of technological, policy, and investment elements in Cuba’s energy transition, and the potential for international cooperation to facilitate the process.
The conference also enabled our American delegation to learn about Cuba’s current efforts to scale up bio-energy, solar, and wind projects across the country. Cuba’s academic and industry leaders shared their ambitious plans to scale up these efforts to achieve their national goals, but also recognized many implementation barriers, especially in attracting sufficient capital to support these efforts. Discussions highlighted the need to “de-risk” foreign investment and build trust in long-term commercial contracts in the Cuban economy.
A pioneer of Cuban renewable energy: CubaSolar’s Luis Bérriz
In addition to the conference, we had the pleasure of visiting the home office of Luis Bérriz, president of the non-profit CubaSolar, and one of the country’s most recognized advocates for renewable energy. Arriving at his home in a Havana residential neighborhood, our group of 10 Americans crowded into Berriz’s office, noting the solar panels on the roof and the pictures of Castro, Guevara, and Lenin on the office walls.
The conversation with Bérriz was wide-ranging, covering geopolitics, the history of Cuban energy policy, and the principles of sustainable energy design. Bérriz noted that the threat of climate change is imminent and profound for an island nation like Cuba, and that the roots of the crisis should be traced directly back to unsustainable energy use in the U.S. and other rich nations.
In contrast, he described Cuba’s turbulent energy history, where disruptions of energy supplies have occurred first in the breakdown in relations with the U.S., then with the Soviet Union, and now with Venezuela. This energy insecurity has forced Cubans to be creative about their use of energy, and resulted in a much smaller per capita energy and resource footprint. He stressed that Cuba has not always made wise decisions—for example, by limiting the ability of private citizens to purchase and install solar power in their homes (in fact, the solar array on the roof of Bérriz’s house was officially illegal until recently).
As interest in renewable energy grows in Cuba, Bérriz emphasized that the focus should not be on technology choices first, but should begin with a clear idea of what energy services people need. For example, people don’t need solar power per se, but rather, are seeking ways to stay comfortable, preserve their food, and move between locations. This functional orientation can help create smarter systems that efficiently meet people’s needs—and avoid investing in technologies that are inefficient or unnecessary. In particular, he highlighted the opportunities for thermal-based energy systems for heating, cooling, and cooking, that don’t need to be converted to electricity first.
Reinventing Cuba’s food system
Agriculture and energy are inextricably linked, so our trip included a visit to Finca Marta, the farm of Fernando Funes, a trained agronomist and former academic who decided five years ago to leave academia and start his own agricultural initiative. Food security has been a chronic problem in Cuba, and Funes saw a pressing need to create new solutions that could work in the real world. So after resigning from his post at a Havana university, he traveled about an hour away to a badly-eroded plot of land to begin his experiment.
Running water was not available on his property, so he hired a “water witcher” to identify likely locations to dig a new well. Since heavy machinery was also not available, Funes and the 75-year old water witcher commenced digging a well on his property using only hand tools; it took more than seven months before they located a sustainable water source.
In the four years since the completion of the well, Funes has grown an elaborate and successful agricultural operation, producing high quality organic fruits and vegetables, honey, and other products. His acreage is covered with carefully-managed terraces for growing crops, animals for producing milk and meat, a 100-hive bee aviary, and an elaborate system for capturing gases from animal manure to power their home and kitchen.
In a few short years, Funes has demonstrated a new model of sustainable agriculture for Cuba, and is working with other local farmers to introduce some of his techniques across the region. The project has gained a lot of attention, including a feature story in the Washington Post, and an upcoming documentary film, being done in collaboration with the organic food advocate Alice Waters.
Building trust and partnership
Returning to Havana after the trip to Finca Marta, Cuban Professor Antonio Sarmiento said his goodbyes to our U.S. delegation. As he reflected on the week together, Professor Sarmiento admitted that he did not have high expectations about potential partnership before we arrived. Cuban scholars have had little opportunity to work together with American academics, and the vexing political situation between the country has blocked many previous attempts to work together. His views changed, however, during our week together. He was impressed by the quality of new ideas that the delegation brought to the discussion of Cuba’s energy future, and was increasingly excited to find ways to combine efforts on these challenges. In parting, Sarmiento shared with the group that he “had been waiting for 50 years for this moment.”
For both the Cubans and the Americans, there was renewed enthusiasm, despite the uncertain political environment, that we could work together on an important challenge and find new ways to support each other.
Cuba is a land full of people with big ideas. In the week we spent in the country, I met several people that were thinking hard about what comes next for Cuba – and beyond. Even restaurant owners had nuanced perspectives on the role of capitalism in the country, how to balance democracy and equality, how to improve quality of life without sacrificing the environment, and how renewable energy might help the country to meet their future needs. There is a widespread sense of imminent change across Cuba, and a desire to seize the moment to put the country on a better path. This is also an exciting time for an academic institution like Duke University to partner with our Cuban partners to test out these new possibilities.
Prior to the Cuban revolution in the 1950s, Cuba was a unique market for American companies. Before new products were launched in the U.S., they were often test-marketed in Cuba. Cuba got a first look at new cars, appliances, TVs, and other products—and their role as a test bed allowed them to pilot innovations.
Perhaps American companies could realize similar opportunities to explore energy innovations in Cuba. As it has in the past, Cuba could be an important regional and global role in testing new innovations, in this case around renewable energy or infrastructure solutions. We hope that a growing partnership between our academic institutions can be a catalyst for new energy solutions that benefit both countries.
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