[Marxism] Rural Electrification in Cuba and Community Sustainability (La Jornada)

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Tue Mar 7 05:55:56 MST 2006

La Jornada (Mexico)
January 30, 2006 

Rural Electrification in Cuba as a Resource for Community Sustainability
A CubaNews translation. Edited by Walter Lippmann.

María Rodríguez Gámez
Centro de Investigaciones de Energía Solar
[Center for Solar Energy Research]
Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

The province of Santiago de Cuba, in the southeast of the island, has high
mountains which make access difficult and isolate the rural communities in
the zone. Santa María de Loreto, 46 houses and 200 inhabitants is one of
these communities. Its population works mainly on fruit and coffee

Its infrastructure is pretty basic, but provides the population with social
facilities such as a medical clinic, a primary school, a convenience store,
a coffee processing factory and a farm management office.

For more than 25 years, the community electric power was supplied by a 32
Kilo Diesel generator, but frequent oil shortages and maintenance
difficulties allowed for only a four hour daily performance. Its service was
therefore very irregular and gave constant signs of unreliability due to
lack of spares, fuel and lubricants.

In view of the situation (by no means unique to this community), the Cuban
in 1986 government launched a program of rural electrification for the
house-clinics of family doctors consisting of independent solar panel
systems. Santa María de Loreto’s Photovoltaic Plant soon became one of the
most important experiences in the country. Not only because it was the first
mid-scale plant built in the country, but also because it meant the
opportunity to learn how this type of facility would work in a tropical
environment under the effect of high temperatures – a particularly important
aspect when considering effectiveness of future investments in renewable
energy sources.

As it was equipped with a Data Acquisition System (DAS) for monitoring the
main operation parameters in the functioning of this type of facility, it
was possible to fine-tune the methodology used in its design.

The project was a complete success; mainly due to the value the community
attributed to the system. The population fully collaborated in the building
and setting up of the facility. The local government representative was
trained to understand the functioning of the plant, so he would be able to
troubleshoot and make decisions that could guarantee a quality electrical
supply service to all the houses in the community.

The environment also reaped benefits when the diesel plant was stopped. A
high level of noise was eliminated and 60 to 80 liters of oil per day were
saved with the consequent elimination of carbon dioxide emissions,
approximately 15 tons a year. Add to these the protection of the soil
surrounding the plant which was frequently contaminated by oil and lubricant

The terrain's layout was favorably used in the construction of the solar
panel field and, therefore, a minimum land movement was required. This
prevented topographical changes. Arable land and crops with little foliage
were chosen. The setting up of the photovoltaic plant has had significant
indirect impact on Santa María Loreto’s economy.

For example, there has been an increase in the community’s labor
productivity. After setting up the plant, coffee production has steadily
risen, from 30 thousand cans [a measurement used in Cuban coffee
plantations] in 1997 to 50 thousand in 1999. A significant amount of diesel
fuel has been saved in the manufacturing process and in fuel transportation
to the locality.

The social benefits clearly mean a better quality of life for the more than
200 people in the community. The uninterrupted electrical power service now
guarantees home lighting, means of communication and food preservation.
Medical assistance quality has improved because the clinic now has better
equipment and possibilities for primary care, vaccine storage and quick
communication with specialized health centers for serious cases.

In general, community members' education has improved as they now have more
information by means of radio and TV; children have access to computers and
recreation options in the evening.

Before the photovoltaic plant was inaugurated the light bulb average per
house was two and most of these were incandescent and of low efficiency.
There were only six radios, eight TV sets and two home refrigerators in the
community. Seven years later, each house had an average of six light bulbs,
a TV set, electric fans and refrigerators.

The biggest obstacles in Cuba for a sustainable generalization of
photovoltaic systems are micro-management and maintenance schemes capable of
guaranteeing a stable long-term operation of this technology. But the
problem was solved by involving the neighbors in the construction, setting
up, and support for the technical team.

Repairs, operational follow-up and specialized maintenance are the
responsibility of the Departamento de Electrificación del Centro de
Investigaciones de Energía Solar (CIES) [Electrification Department of the
Center for Solar Energy Research] with support from the municipal provincial
government and Cuban NGO Cubasolar.

Presently the plant is working adequately and has been considered a
reference experience in Cuba. This has generated considerable scientific and
technological interest in manufacturers and installers because it has served
as a laboratory for the study of the social, economic and environmental
impact aspects of the project.

With the research carried out and evidence of stable functioning for 20
years, it is possible to talk about sustainability of this technology and
its benefits for Cuba's rural areas.

Besides, the partial payment for the service has contributed to create a
greater responsibility in the users and the promotion of an energy-saving

These lessons prove that the best tool for sustainable development under
such circumstances is to provide the community with basic knowledge on the
functioning of the plant, and turning the facility into a fundamental
element of their survival and social development in situ.

Santa María de Loreto has become a reference point in the upgrading and
professional training of national and foreign personnel interested in
photovoltaic technologies. From the start, it was seen as an alternative to
stimulate social development in the region. This had a decisive influence on
the design and operational parameters. This goal was achieved. The job now
is to keep it working.


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