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Cuba’s Peak Oil Experience: Looking Back Over 20 Years

Scott Cooney | Tuesday September 14th, 2010 | 0 Comments

Mario Arrastia Avila, a Physicist in Cuba’s energy transition agency Cuba Energia, spoke in San Francisco last week about the lessons of Cuba’s transition after its own Peak Oil disaster struck in the early 1990s.  At the time, the Soviet Union’s collapse meant that North Korea, Cuba, and other communist satellites faced the end of cheap imported oil that formed the backbone of the energy infrastructure in those countries.

The lessons of 20 years of energy efficiency upgrades, transition to renewables, community education around conservation, and utility-scale reinvention serve as a powerful model of what will be in the United States and elsewhere as we experience our own inevitable energy shocks.  (As an aside, North Korea chose a different route, with disastrous consequences for its economy and political future….but that’s another story).

From 1990 to 2007, total electricity consumption in Cuba rose just 16%, despite a country-wide transition from kerosene fuel to electricity for cooking (household energy consumption rose 86% during that time, highlighting the incredible savings elsewhere in the grid).

The revolution came from the top, as well as the grassroots:  Fidel Castro himself said, “We are not waiting for fuel to fall from the sky, because we have discovered fortunately something much more important:  energy conservation, which is like finding a great deposit of oil.

From 1990-2007, Cuba’s energy agency, Cuba Energia, led the transition:

  1. the country reduced its dependence on foreign oil by 1 million tons
  2. the country reduced production of  carbon emissions by 5 million tons
  3. 91% of energy-sucking, U.S. made refrigerators were replaced with high efficiency units
  4. 100% of their 9.4 million incandescent bulbs were replaced (the first country to effectively ban incandescents)
  5. 69% of air conditioning units were replaced
  6. 100% of their 1 million+ cooling fans were replaced
  7. 90+% of their kitchen appliances were upgraded, including the phase-out of unhealthy kerosene appliances
  8. a commitment to distributed energy led to Cuba currently being ranked #2 in the world for distributed generation behind only Denmark.
  9. blackouts were virtually eliminated, from 188 days per year in 2004 and 224 in 2005 to 3 in 2006 and 0 in 2007.

This represents a monumental effort with incredible results.  How did a tiny, poor nation pull this off?  Avila cited the country’s crisis as the needed political capital for the transition.  Since everyone realized they had to make some changes, politically painful maneuvers were more achievable.  For instance, energy rates were grotesquely cheap, and to get the wealthier Cubans to consider conservation, a tiered rate structure was needed, wherein users would pay considerably more per kilowatt the more kilowatts they used.

Educating the population has played an incredible role in setting up Cuba’s economy for the new economy.  Cuba Energia has an ongoing set of PSA’s that show people how to use appliances more efficiently, how to get from point A to point B without driving, etc.  Each one of these PSA’s ends with the word “Ahorra!” meaning “Save money!”

Phone cards from the public telecomm company have messages of conservation.  Even their convertible 10 Peso note has energy efficiency and renewable energy themes.  Social workers and student volunteers hit the streets, going house to house, to show everyday Cubans how to live more efficiently.

Want to see the transition up close?  Global Exchange offers Reality Tours to Cuba.  See www.EcoCubaExchange.org for more information.

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About the author:  Scott Cooney is the Principal of GreenBusinessOwner.com, a small business advisory website for companies looking to navigate the green economy, and author of Build a Green Small Business (McGraw-Hill)

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