Cuban Province Well on Its Way to 100% Renewable Energy
President Obama’s recent announcement that he wants to begin normalizing relations with Cuba generated news around the world. But the Cuban province of Granma may soon be making headlines for another reason: its embrace of renewable energy.
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While Cuba is an island full of sun, rivers and windy coasts, only four percent of the island’s electricity is generated from renewable energy. The island hopes to soon change that, with a goal of generating 24 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030, and Granma is leading the way.
Granma province (pop. 836,000), located in the eastern part of the island, is home to the Sierra Maestra, and is named after the boat from which Fidel Castro and his rebel soldiers disembarked to begin the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban government wants to make Granma province 100-percent renewably powered, a project the Cubans call “The Solarization of Granma Province,” as a model the rest of the island can follow. They are well on their way. In 2013, renewables supplied 37 percent of all the energy consumed in Granma province, and the province currently has 3,664 renewable energy systems in operation. These include everything from solar photovoltaic (PV) systems to biogas digesters to solar food dryers.
Energy From the Sun
Granma province, being in the most mountainous part of Cuba, has many isolated rural towns. At last count the province had 1,628 small off-grid PV systems powering medical clinics, hospitals, schools, social centers, museums and homes located in remote areas without access to grid power. The Cuban government funded most of these systems, supplied with PV panels fabricated in Cuba out of imported cells. Cubans take education so seriously that across the island all 2,364 schools in rural areas without grid power are powered with solar panels and wind turbines—including the 51 schools with only one student. Many of these fall in the mountainous regions of Granma province.
Taking advantage of the huge amount of sun that falls on the province, there are also 426 solar hot water heaters, three solar distillers to produce water for PV system batteries and a solar dryer that dries medicinal plants for the Natural Medicine Center.
Energy From Water and Wind
Granma province is also blessed with many small rivers. Thirty-six mini- and micro-hydropower plants produce over seven megawatts (MW) of electricity for homes, hospitals and schools not connected to the grid. Five of these, with a capacity of 1,740 kilowatts (kW), feed electricity into the grid. However, many even more remote homes in the area were left without electricity until a young campesino named Miguel Gonzalez figured out he could develop a cheap way to electrify the homes with running water. Using car alternators and bicycle dynamos he created a small nano-hydro generator with a capacity of less than one kW that is now used in 172 homes throughout Granma province, allowing people access to electric light, radio and television.
Although most of the wind potential on the island is found along the coast, there are 938 windmills that pump water in Granma. And wind-measuring stations have shown that there is a potential of more than 800 MW wind capacity in the province (and far more across the entire island), so they hope to put up more wind turbines, adding to the five wind farms across the island that currently account for 11 MW of installed capacity.
Energy From Waste
Sugar is one of Cuba’s largest export crops. Granma province is home to 11 of the 56 sugar mills in the country, all of which employ generators that turn the bagasse—the waste material that remains after sugarcane is crushed to extract the juice—into electricity. The Granma sugar mills produce 29 MW of electricity that power the processing plants and that occasionally gets fed back into the grid. The province also has abundant biomass in the forms of sawdust, coffee husks, rice hulls and marabú, an invasive plant that seems to be everywhere and that you will hear Cubans across the island grumbling about over their coffee. Granma has 14 commercial dryers to dry coffee, rice and wood; 135 brick kilns; and 632 domestic kitchens that use these sources of biomass.
There are also 127 biodigestors throughout the province that use animal waste from cows and pigs to produce methane. The methane is used to run lights or for cooking. Animals are not only being utilized for their waste, but also for transport. The 4,000 animal drawn carts transporting passengers, solid waste and cargo throughout Granma save an estimated 5,900 metric tons of diesel per year.
Cuban environmental engineers are also experimenting with making biodiesel out of Jatropha curcas, a non-edible plant that grows in difficult terrain. There is currently a 20-acre Jatropha farm in Granma making biodiesel for the province’s tractors.
Educating the Next Generation
Granma province is home to the Camilo Cienfuegos School Complex (CECC), the first educational project built by the Cuban Revolution in 1962. The school complex, covering more than 1,000 acres in the largest city of Granma province, was built for illiterate children of the Sierra Maestra, and currently has 5,000 students from preschool to high school, and even a pedagogical institution for those learning to be teachers. The campus showcases bioclimatic architecture, and one of the main focuses of the school is environmental education.
Schoolchildren throughout the island belong to school clubs, and many of the clubs at CECC are related to environmental issues and renewable energy. So many so that in 2003 the Center for Solar Studies was added to the school complex, which showcases solar photovoltaic panels, solar hot water systems, wind turbines, hydraulic ram pumps, biogas systems, and solar distillers, dryers and cookers.
“We aspire to convert Granma into a province that is a model in everything related to solar energy, as an example that the rest of the country can follow,” according to the president of the provincial assembly of people’s power in Granma province (equivalent to a city council). “We are required to create active environmentalists,” he wrote in Cuba’s renewable energy magazine, “citizens who are not only concerned but who also address environmental problems closely related to energy use and who contribute to their solution—from children in small, rural schools, to residents of a neighborhood affected by pollution, to workers demanding the elimination of violations of environmental regulations.”
Granma province is well on its way to achieving its goal and becoming a 100-percent renewable province. For the entire island to reach its goal of 24 percent renewable by 2030, it plans to add 640 MW of wind, 700 MW of PV, and 750 MW of biomass to its mix. While some of these projects will be 100-percent Cuban owned, the island will be looking for more than $9 billion in foreign investment for more than 200 new renewable energy projects. Time will tell if President Obama’s historic phone call with Raul Castro opened new doors to help make that renewable energy transition happen.
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The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
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Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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