A renewable energy revolution is sweeping across Cuba. Committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by generating nearly a quarter of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, Cuba has embarked on an ambitious plan to scale up biogas production.
For decades, Cuba relied on cheap oil imports from Venezuela to fuel its electricity power stations, but the climate crisis has made it clear the country needs to move to a more sustainable and home-grown solution. Cuba’s energy and agriculture sectors combined account for more than 90 percent of its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
“Biogas is hugely important for Cuba's energy security,” says Luis Cepero Casas, a researcher at the Indio Hatuey Experimental Station of Pastures and Forages, part of the University of Matanzas. “Firstly, because it is both produced and consumed locally. It’s part of the circular economy as well as providing environmental, economic, social and energy benefits. But more significantly, it means we can reduce imports of fossil fuels. We estimate that biogas can generate more than 245 GWh of electricity every year, or reduce this equivalent amount of energy by its use.”
Cepero is one of a team of biogas experts at Indio Hatuey. He’s currently working on the EU Global Climate Change Alliance (GCCA+) low carbon sustainable development programme, a €4.4 million project to promote the use of bioenergy in the rural municipality of Martí in Matanzas province. Already one biodigester has been installed in the municipality, and another is due to come on stream soon - with a joint potential of 4500 m3 of biogas per day.
“Biogas has become increasingly widespread in Cuba in recent years,” he explains. “The Movement of Biogas Users (MUB) is spread across the island, although most of the biogas plants today are found in Cuba's agricultural sector. Small-scale peasant farms account for around 98 percent of the country's total existing biodigesters.”
Although there are plans to install around 500 biogas plants using residues from distilleries, canning factories, sugar mills, slaughterhouses and pulping factories, the Ministry of Mines and Energy is focusing on biodigesters using pig and cow manure. At least 7000 more units are needed to meet renewable energy targets.
“Biogas plants reduce CO2 emissions primarily because they are a closed-cycle technology, but they have have another big advantage,” says MsC. Cepero. “They create biofertilisers as a by-product, which can be used instead of chemical fertilisers. The organic fertiliser produced in the biogas plants is natural and does not emit polluting gases, and no fuel is used to obtain or manufacture it.”
It’s this combined approach of agroecology and GHG reduction which is at the heart of the GCCA+ programme in Martí municipality, which runs until 2024 and is expected to benefit around 22,000 people. As well as promoting increased use of biogas in homes and on farms, the project aims to use biomethane to fuel buses, in an area where poor public transport has limited accessibility in the past.
“Small-scale family biogas plants can be easily built and assembled locally,” adds Cepero. “In Cuba we have a number of different proven models which can be adapted according to what materials are available. Lots of people are already trained to design and build small-scale plants, although sometimes there is a shortage of construction supplies which can slow things up.”
With more than two thirds of the Cuban population still relying on electricity for cooking, domestic biogas production could be a game changer. In the neighbouring municipality of Jovellanos, the Correa family have been cooking with biogas for the past three years.
“We have a biodigester which is fed every day by a member of the family on a rotating basis,” says Héctor Correa, who with his wife and two sons runs the Finca Coincidencia family farm. “It uses at least 210 kg of fresh waste produced by our cows and pigs. Thanks to the biodigester, we use significantly less electricity on the farm, which means we also save money. Even when there is no electricity, the biogas is always available.”
”The biodigester provides enough gas not only for heating, cooking and refrigerating food for the family, but also for preparing food and drinks for the for the half-a-dozen people who work on the farm,” says Héctor’s wife Odalis.
There are other benefits as well. “We use all the effluents and biofertilisers produced in the biodigester to fertilise the land,” adds Héctor. “That helps to close the production cycle and save money, as we don’t need to buy chemical fertilisers. It also means the food we grow is healthier. I’m very happy that we are making a small contribution to reducing greenhouse gasses and improving the environment.”
Back at the Indio Hatuey research station - named after an indigenous leader who fought against the Spanish conquistadores in the early sixteenth century - Cepero and his team are stepping up their own fight against climate change.
“I am optimistic that Cuba can make the transition to cleaner energy in the future,” he says. “It’s clear there is a growing awareness in the country about the need to apply renewable energy sources, from the state right down to individuals. Cuba has a huge potential for renewable energy - not just biogas, but solar, wind, biomass, ocean wave energy, geothermal and small hydroelectric schemes. If we combine these resources we can guarantee all Cuba’s energy needs all the time.”