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
. 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.
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.