Cuba discovers huge potential

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The wind industry could soon stand to benefit from Cuba's chronic power shortage as the island nation gears up to fill the void left by the former Soviet Union and beat Washington's stranglehold on its increasingly fragile economy. Apparently ignoring a review of its long-term energy policy, which dismissed wind power as an ineffective option, the Havana government has planned a Spanish-built, 1 MW wind farm outside the capital and is hoping to erect several more along its wind-swept, 1500 kilometre Atlantic coastline.

"Cuba has never seriously contemplated wind farms," says Jorge Santamarina Guerra of Cuba's Energy Council who headed a four-man delegation at the recent Seminar on Wind power in Southern Europe in Spain, "but new developments in wind technology would seem to make this option a very viable one for our nation." The sudden change of heart followed a Cuban think tank report on renewables released this year. It singled out wind power for priority development because of the relatively short period it takes to build wind plant. The time factor is a key element in Cuba. Dire shortages caused by the US embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union have sparked unrest among the population, threatening the Communist leadership.

Cuba currently receives only 50% of the previous oil import total of 13 million tonnes supplied annually by the Soviet Union prior to 1989. Today it has to rely on an inadequate supply of hydroelectric power and sugar cane residuals to make up the rest of its energy requirements which are largely thermal-generated. Research is being carried out into refinery techniques for its own very low grade oil, but the deficit in energy production will require a solution long before Cuba's scientists come up with an answer.

The wind farm at Santa Cruz del Norte is being built by the Spanish wind turbine manufacturer, Ecotècnia. The Cuban experiment will have four 250 kW turbines and, once connected in June, supply the electrical requirements of a town 40 kilometres north west of the capital. Reports on the financial outlay are conflicting, but estimates put the investment at half a million dollars which came out of a $1.5 million Spanish-Cuban co-operation agreement.

The Santa Cruz del Norte wind farm is not the only one on the cards. According to Santamarina Guerra, "It's just the beginning." He says his country has enormous potential for wind power development and cites research for viable wind farm locations which has turned up five different possible sites along the north Atlantic coastline, some as wide as 100 kilometres. "And there would be many more if it wasn't for the unstable winds which in some places vary from hurricane blusters to quiet breezes," he says.

As for grid connection and distribution of the power generated, the state-run Union Basica Electrica, which channels power to 95% of the population via a huge network blanketing the country, has offered no technical opposition to wind power generation. Santamarina Guerra adds that he sees no reason to believe why other foreign companies should be barred from Cuba's new found faith in wind power. "I'm convinced that in the same way foreign companies are opening businesses in the tourist industry here, foreign wind power manufacturers will find no difficulty in tapping into our wind potential," he says.

Given the US's long-term aggressive policy towards Cuba, however, not all firms stand to gain from Cuba's interest in wind power. The best placed companies reside in Europe, where -- with some exceptions -- there exists a noncommittal attitude towards Washington's anti-Castro stance. Does Santamarina Guerra believe that Cuba's interest in wind power will flag once the American embargo is lifted? "No not at all. We have learned our lesson fast. Without autonomous power sources, political independence is impossible. The two go together."

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