Rural Cuba Basks in the Sun

By Eliza Barclay

In Cuba, it is no longer uncommon to pass a school or a doctor’s office in a remote village that features one or two flat, square contraptions on the roof, glittering and drinking in the bright sun. The struggle to electrify rural communities in the face of a weak economy and the burgeoning price of petroleum has inspired Cuba to develop an unusual resolution of implementing alternative energy sources. Solar energy channeled through solar panels has evolved as an exceptionally creative application of appropriate technology in this country.

The Periodo Especial Forces Cuba to Look Inwards

From 1990 – 1996, Cuba underwent what is now known as the periodo especial or Special Period. GDP plummeted and imports of all kinds tapered off following the end of the Soviet Union and its financial and trade support of Cuba . Beginning in the Special Period, Cuba ’s ability to import oil from other countries was hindered by soaring world prices, the country’s own inability to produce goods to be traded, and ironclad restrictions on engaging other countries in trade.

Without a steady stream of affordable foreign oil, not to mention the prohibitive costs of developing its own substandard oil resources, Cuba ’s only option was to look inwards at other opportunities for energy self-sufficiency. After the creation of the National Energy Sources Development Program in 1993, government officials and members of Cuba ’s scientific community began to mobilize to expand domestic energy sources and commit to electrify schools, hospitals, doctors’ offices and community centers, especially in the poorest, most isolated communities.

While the government was deciphering its energy priorities, a group of environmental scientists who had begun to pay heed to warnings and who were beginning to gather information on the specific risks that climate change poses to Cuba, decided to collaborate around energy use. CubaSolar, founded in 1994, is a non-governmental organization formed and run by a team of scientists, engineers, and planners who have been fundamental in conceiving, developing and implementing alternative sources of energy in Cuba.  CubaSolar collaborates with many other agencies and non-governmental organizations to disseminate information and provide training on alternative energy technologies, principally solar.

Solar Energy Out of Necessity

The decision to employ photovoltaic (PV) panels as the means for electrifying rural areas did not evolve principally out of an environmental consciousness. Because the cost of implanting the wire, pylons and transformers of a main distribution system to remote locations is so high, energy technicians realized that installing individual PV panels was far cheaper. Each PV system used in a Cuban rural school costs approximately $2,475.  In comparison, the cost of lengthening electrical power lines in the mountain areas ranges from $7,000 to $12,500 per kilometer.

Aside from cost, advances in local manufacturing capabilities have also made PV panels an appropriate energy option.  In 2001, the Pinar del Río Electronic Components Complex began to produce solar cells for photovoltaic panels, adapting a technology that had been sponsored by Spain in the 1980s until the U.S. embargo drove the company into bankruptcy, according to the head of the solar cell laboratory at Electronic Materials and Reagents Institute (IMRE).  Eventually, after years of research through the 1990s, Pinar del Río was finally able to begin manufacturing high quality, silicone cells comprising roughly 70% of the panels.  The remaining 30% of panel material is imported from Europe . Cuba now saves 10% of what it would spend on imported panels by buying the components it does not manufacture and assembling the panels at home.

Today, over 2,364 schools, 350 doctors’ offices, and hundreds of hospitals draw their power from silicone-based solar panels.  According to Bruno Henríquez of Cubaenergia, “There is currently a plan to electrify 100,000 more rural households at a rate of 20,000 per year.”

Amazing Progress

Laurie Stone of Solar Energy International (SEI), a non-profit based organization in Carbondale , Colorado , was a member of the first American research mission in 1996 to Cuba to learn about renewable energy development.   She has been back nearly every year since then, and led a trip of Americans in May 2003 to visit renewable energy projects. Stone says, “The public outreach campaigns have been incredibly successful. Today, you can ask any Cuban on the street and they will know about the solar panels on the schools around the country.”

CubaSolar and numerous other government and non-government agencies will be working to increase these numbers and continue to research and implement other types of alternative energy sources like biomass, wind, and micro-hydro. 

The Center for Appropriate Technology (CITA) was originally founded in 1995 to conduct research on improving inexpensive water and sanitation technologies to meet the needs of poorer Cubans in rural areas. CITA is currently working to develop prototypes for several technologies including a variety of water pumps, windmills, and water filters.  One of the pumps CITA is working on is solar-powered and is designed to be energy efficient. 

These kinds of technologies, in addition to further proliferation of PV panels, will maintain Cuba ’s impressive trajectory of sustainable development.  While the country has not yet been able to achieve large-scale energy production from renewable energy, solar panels have been highly beneficial for rural Cubans.  As the country’s economy picks up and more opportunities for trade and production arise, government officials and citizens alike will need to reconcile the tradeoffs of adopting larger scale and potentially more environmentally destructive technologies.