Castro’s generator power play aims to beat heat
By Marc Frank
Tuesday, April 4, 2006; 8:41 AM
HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba is racing to install thousands of
container-sized diesel generators across the island to avoid another
situation like the one last summer when widespread blackouts fanned
President Fidel Castro has taken personal responsibility for what he
calls an “energy revolution” prompted by widespread complaints about the
failings of Cuba’s obsolete power plants.
His supporters say the first-of-its-kind energy plan is a stroke of
audacious genius. His critics see it as a desperate blunder.
The generators are being grouped in clusters and connected to the
electrical grid so they can feed the national system or operate
independently in all 14 provinces.
“The unit consists of 32 generators in eight groups … capable of
generating 60.4 megawatts,” state-run news agency AIN said of one
cluster in eastern Holguin province.
The one- to two-megawatt generators, each capable of powering a whole
neighborhood, are also being installed at key facilities around the
Caribbean island, such as hospitals and factories.
Around $800 million has been spent so far to import generators, mainly
from Spain, Germany and South Korea.
Castro has promised to put an end to the frequent outages that Cubans
have had to live with since the collapse of Soviet communism plunged
their country into economic crisis.
He has also vowed to provide every Cuban home with new electrical
appliances from China that use less power, from stoves and fans to
refrigerators, in many cases replacing inefficient U.S.-made products
dating back to the 1950s.
Cuba’s communist-run state is also replacing millions of incandescent
light bulbs with energy-saving fluorescent ones.
Castro says his “energy revolution” will pay for itself by saving Cuba
at least $1 billion a year in generating costs.
Part of the cost will be borne by Cubans who for decades have enjoyed
heavily subsidized electricity. Rates were jacked up last year, rising
steeply for homes that use more power.
POWER GRID A MESS
Blackouts have wreaked havoc on the daily life of Cubans and the economy
since the demise of the Soviet Union deprived their country of generous
Now Cuba is receiving ample oil with preferential financing from
Venezuela, but the electrical grid itself is a shambles.
The island’s seven aging oil-fired power plants can generate about 2,700
megawatts, but operate at only 60 percent of capacity due to breakdowns
and maintenance halts.
For over a decade, the plants have run on locally produced high-sulfur
oil that clogs and damages the equipment.
The entire system nears collapse when a hurricane strikes transmission
lines or two or more plants go out of service at the same time. It can
barely cover national consumption in peak periods when Cubans turn on
fans and air conditioners.
With outages of 12 hours and longer last summer, Cubans were having
trouble keeping cool in the tropical heat, while food rotted in their
refrigerators. In crowded Central Havana, public discontent emerged as
small street protests.
The government scrambled to find a quick solution.
By May, according to Castro, hundreds of generators will have added the
equivalent of three 350-megawatt power plants that would cost $1.7
billion and take six years to build.
More will be added until Cuba can phase out its oil-burning power
plants, while keeping two newer gas-fired ones.
Cuba is spending a further $250 million to replace old transmission
lines, transformers and breakers so the grid can handle increased demand
as Cubans still cooking with kerosene and wood fires go electric.
Since the generators began to arrive, blackouts have all but
disappeared. But the real test will come with the hot summer months when
Cubans give the energy plan mixed reviews.
“Those of us who support the revolution support the plan; those who do
not, as always, think it is crazy,” a Communist Party militant said.
“There is no doubt it is an ingenious, though expensive, way for them to
quickly solve their immediate problems,” a Western diplomat said.
“The question we all have is what will happen in a few years. Generators
have never been used as the basis of a power system before, anywhere,”
Cuban officials brush off such concerns and insist the strategy has been
well thought out.
But foreign electrical engineers say it is a recipe for a logistics
nightmare as thousands of generators will have to be constantly supplied
with diesel and their engines serviced.
Cuba would have been better off in the long run building generating
plants, an Italian engineer said.
Still, Castro insists the plan will help Cuba cope with the impact of
hurricanes by making each part of the country independent of the
It will also strengthen Cuba’s defenses, he said, recalling the U.S.
invasion of Iraq. “Our entire power grid could have been knocked out
with just seven bombs.”