When you absolutely, positively NEED to get efficient overnight!

Every once in a while, we have an experience that completely crumbles some long-standing preconceived notion, and this week I’m pleased to share my revelation with you. I’ve just returned from a week-long trip to Cuba with a group of twenty other energy professionals sponsored by Solar Energy International andGlobal Exchange. The purpose of the trip was to explore Cuban solutions to curb energy consumption and increase the use of renewable energy in the face of dire circumstances.
Before 1990, Cuba enjoyed robust trade with the former Soviet Union. A major component of the trade relationship involved Cuban sugar and Russian oil. That partnership came to an abrupt end with the fall of the Soviet economy, which subsequently lead to the crash of the Cuban economy. This started what the Cubans euphemistically call the “special period,” when dramatic reforms and austerity measures were required if the nation was to survive.
Due to the demise of their major trade ally, the Cuban people suddenly found themselves without jobs, money or resources — and suffered lengthy, daily power outages. Cuban leaders understood that people needed basic services, but sacrifices would have to be made.
The government immediately invested in public transportation, purchased one million bicycles, mandated energy-efficient lighting and refrigeration, upgraded its power grid, expanded the use of renewable energy, and developed electric rate structures that provide affordable electricity to meet basic needs while discouraging overuse.
Out of economic and practical necessity, Cuba reduced its energy consumption by half over a period of four years. They have now become global leaders in practical, innovative approaches to energy efficiency, renewable energy, and community energy solutions – on a very tight budget. Cuba also looked to increase international cooperation. They now export technical expertise in health care, and have their own solar electric panel assembly facility.
I was impressed by the small hydroelectric power station that used 30-year old Russian technology to provide power for 57 households. The same size system might provide enough power for four average American homes. Each family takes pride in some level of “ownership” of the station and understands the limitations of a finite resource. If one family is being an energy hog, the whole neighborhood feels it. The local school takes power-priority and has a solar power system as a backup.
You might think that all this frugality makes Cubans grumpy, but the society has worked such circumstances to their advantage. For example, the high price of chemical fertilizers (manufactured from fossil fuels) has facilitated advances in organic farming using locally produced compost as fertilizer. This saves money while producing healthy, locally produced food.
Coffee was once an import, but the connection between agriculture and economy is very strong. Why pay someone else for something you have the resources to do yourself? The result, I’m happy to report, is quite delicious — and farming has become a well-paying and sought after job. One local grower offers benefits that exceed even a progressive U.S. employer’s standards.
Throughout these struggles, every citizen has been provided with health care, a home and education. I don’t want to put a happy face on all of this. Change is always a struggle, and there was substantial change on many levels. Not everything tried has worked. Many of those bicycles are now rusting away because despite good intentions, there was no infrastructure for repairing or even riding bicycles in many places.
The Cuban people have overcome many hardships together to develop a strong society that simply wants to be "allowed to live". If you ask most Cubans what they mean by that, the list includes: eliminate U.S. spending to destabilize Cuba, end the U.S. embargo against their nation, and free the Cuban 5
There is a vast divide between people and politics. Politicians on both sides of this debate have dug in and neither one wants to flinch first for fear of showing signs of weakness. But nothing will change while fear remains a driving force in politics. How is it that the U.S. embargo/blockade against Cuba has lasted longer than the time it took for the U.S. to engage in a horrific war in Viet Nam, make concessions, and become positively engaged with that nation? Every country wears its pride on the same sleeve as its problems, and I encourage you to look past the politics between Cuba and the U.S. in order to understand the deeper connection and potential that exist between us. Coming together over our common values and embracing cultural diversity will serve only to benefit the humanity and economy of two great nations.

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Comment by Dennis McCarthy on June 2, 2011 at 8:41am

A very interesting read- and inspirational ! A whole country halving its consumption, its very laudable,

I know that since it was done at our house( halving kWh use) it could be done universally- that would be outstanding.

 I doubt the US citizenry would have the resolve which is a shame, its less about the resources and tools

to accomplish the goal- and more about the message of " do you realize how much energy you waste"

& are you willing to make lifestyle changes?- many of my self absorbed neighbours/ fellow citizens

couldn't care less about the environmental impact of their solqueiscous behaviour - sadly what may

force their hand- deprivation , if electricity were rationed , could you and your family live well on

2000 watts per a person a day- Only a small percentage of Americans could! Yet the Cubans can-

Inspirational!!

Comment by Paul Scheckel on May 5, 2011 at 9:27am

Well said, Ed. Not entirely sure we'll "get it" until (as they say) the excrement impacts the turbulatoring oscillator.

To Evan's comment, there are sugar mills using waste pulp for power, but much of the sugar industry is in various state of ruin with little money to rebuild.

It will be very interesting to watch as the Cubans work to develop the oil resources discovered off their coast. Might be just the ticket for the US to have a reason to become friendly.

Comment by Ed Voytovich on May 5, 2011 at 8:04am

One lesson we learn from your Cuban experience is that it takes a quantum shift in circumstances to cause a quantum shift in policy and behavior. 

This country needs some quantum shifting.  It also need to eliminate the shameful and destructive embargo.

Comment by Evan Mills on May 1, 2011 at 1:05am

I was there just as the Russians were completing their exit and saw some of those million Chinese bikes you mentioned.  I also saw a huge team of oxen pulling a tractor-trailer (gas shortage).  There were rolling blackouts and vast empty highways. 

Another thing to add to your list of impressive energy efforts there is the making of electricity from the pulpywaste products (bagasse) from their sugar industry.   I hope that's still happening there...

Comment by Paul Scheckel on April 30, 2011 at 4:46am
Great idea, Evan, I will reach out to them. One of the things that professionals most want and need is information. However, internet access is quite difficult in Cuba - its just not available to the extent it is in the rest of the world, and its essentially dial-up service. Universities may have satellite internet but its cost prohibitive. This situation is frustrated by the fact that high speed internet cables surround the island on their way from the US to the Virgin Islands but the US blockade against Cuba prevents them from accessing those high speed lines.
Comment by Evan Mills on April 29, 2011 at 10:31pm
Please invite the home energy pros you met in Cuba to join Home Energy Pros and share their stories.

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