Cuba has solved crippling energy shortages that plagued the island as recently as 2004 without sacrificing a long-term commitment to promoting environmentally friendly fuels, the head of the U.N. Environment Program said Wednesday.
The electric grid still relies too heavily on wasteful gas-flare reactors and heavy polluting diesel generators, but the communist government has taken important steps toward developing wind and solar power, as well as ethanol from sugar cane, said Achim Steiner, the program's executive director. "Cuba a few years ago was facing a real energy crisis, 16 hours of ... electricity cuts and therefore a realization that the economy was going to collapse under this system," said Steiner, in Havana for a conference on the environment and development.
"In terms of a short term response, it is quite remarkable how Cuba, under its economic conditions, managed to solve that crisis," he said.
At a news conference, Steiner added that "Cuba can look proudly at having solved a short-term crisis with a long-term commitment toward cleaner energy." He said his organization wanted to "put a spotlight on Cuba's efforts."
Just three years ago, the country was hit by blackouts that wounded the economy while enraging a population suffering through the merciless summer months without air conditioning, fans or any way to refrigerate food.
The government's response was a sweeping "energy revolution" that included an overall of the antiquated electrical grid, as well conservation drives. Fidel Castro appeared on television nearly daily to explain improvements in excruciating detail and government workers went door to door in many neighborhoods, replacing incandescent light bulbs with more-efficient alternatives.
Steiner praised the energy revolution, but noted that things were far from ideal. A gas reactor throws a plume of dark smoke over Havana's otherwise idyllic bay and most vehicles here use leaded gasoline and diesel that fill the air with pollutants.
Cuba's economy has recovered well after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union cost Havana billions in generous subsidies. But that recovery has largely been fueled by oil-rich Venezuela, whose socialist president, Hugo Chavez, provides the island with oil at favorable prices.