HAVANA, Jun 1 (IPS) - Like other Latin American countries, Cuba is
focusing on the development of renewable energy sources. But unlike
Brazil, a leader in biofuels, this Caribbean island nation has ruled
out the production of ethanol fuel based on sugarcane, because of
President Fidel Castro's opposition to using food crops to produce
biofuel on a large scale.
Cuban researchers continue to see the sugar industry, for decades the
motor of the Cuban economy, as a strategic sector capable of producing
food products for human and animal consumption, generating electricity
from bagasse -- the fibrous by-product of sugar extraction from cane
stalks -- or producing alcohol and even pharmaceutical products.
When the sugarcane industry was at its height, producing harvests of
up to eight million tons, it generated around 10 percent of the
electrical power produced in Cuba. But with the drop in production
seen over the past decade, the proportion of electricity that it
produces shrank from 10 to 5.6 percent, between 1990 and 2002.
In 2002, the sugar industry underwent a major restructuring that
involved the closure of half of the country's 156 sugar mills, in
order to bring production levels into line with international prices,
which had dropped at that time to around six cents a pound.
"The first source of renewable energy remains sugarcane biomass, and
if the strategy for the future is to produce energy in a decentralised
manner and with diversified sources, this should be one of them,"
Cuban expert Julio Torres commented to IPS.
A large part of the mills that survived the restructuring and remain
active upgraded their installations in order to generate their own
energy supplies, although they do not yet produce a surplus to sell to
the national grid.
"Investment must be made in technological changes to make the
electricity generating industry more efficient," said Torres. "The
problem does not lie in the number of mills that are working, but in
the quality of the mills."
"Sugarcane biomass could be the start of the road towards sustainable
energy production for our country," he added.
The expert said there are plans to increase sugarcane production, but
argued that researchers "must begin studying the best way to deal with
the problems posed by climate change, which has a major impact on
This year, unseasonal rains hindered the sugar harvest, which ended in
mid-May with an output no higher than last year's poor showing: 1.2
million tons, according to preliminary estimates.
The cost per kilowatt of burning biomass is four times lower than that
of burning fossil fuels. In addition, biomass is a cleaner source of
energy that does not release into the environment heavy metals and
other toxic substances.
Although the residues produced by the alcohol industry do pollute the
environment, there is technology that allows such waste to be used in
the production of biogas, which would replace the fuel oil used in the
Biogas is produced by the anaerobic digestion or fermentation of
organic matter. It is a low-cost, renewable biofuel that can be used
for cooking or generating electricity. At the same time, the process
generates a subproduct that can be used as fertiliser or as feed for
fish or birds.
"Biogas has several uses, but the most important aspect is its impact
on reducing the pollution produced by the country's sugar and coffee
factories," Luis Bérriz, president of Cubasolar, the Society for the
Promotion of Renewable Energy Sources and Respect for the Environment,
In his view, what is needed is "greater development of this source of
alternative energy in the country," which already uses
hydroelectricity and solar power and is also interested in harnessing
A year ago, sugar industry officials announced during an international
conference in Havana an ambitious programme to expand the alcohol
industry, including the modernisation of 11 distilleries and the
installation of seven new ones, which would make use of the waste
products by means of different solutions.
The project was aimed at increasing the production of alcohol,
including dehydrated alcohol to be mixed with gasoline on the domestic
market and for export, Luis Gálvez, director of the governmental Cuban
Institute of Research on Sugarcane Derivatives, told IPS at the time.
But the industry has ruled out its plans to produce ethanol fuel -- an
issue on which the convalescent Castro has launched a heated debate,
in which he focuses on the danger posed to food security by using food
crops to produce biofuels on a large scale.
In a congress on renewable energy last week, Conrado Moreno, a member
of Cuba's Academy of Sciences, said the upgrading of 11 distilleries
would allow an increase in alcohol output -- mainly for use in
producing rum and pharmaceutical products -- to 150 million litres a
"That ethanol will not go towards the production of fuel," said
Moreno, who added that "There has never been large-scale production in
Cuba" of ethanol for fuel.
The Cuban government signed an agreement with Venezuela in February
for the construction of 11 plants to produce ethanol and the expansion
of sugarcane cultivation towards that end in that South American
As Alí Rodríguez, Venezuela's ambassador to Cuba, later explained, the
fuel will cover already existing demand in Venezuela, by providing the
15 percent ethanol in gasoline exports and by replacing the leaded
gasoline that is no longer produced in the country. (END/2007)