Business & Economy

3 Massive blackouts in February raise alarm bells in Cuba

By Juan Carlos Espinosa

Havana, Feb 22 (EFE).- Three massive blackouts in February that left much of Cuba without electricity have underscored the severe energy challenges facing the Caribbean island, where authorities have been unable to fulfill their promise to significantly reduce power cuts this year.

The country still has not fully recovered from the most recent large blackout on Tuesday that affected at least nine of the country’s 15 provinces (from Cienfuegos in the center of the island to the easternmost province of Guantanamo).

Although state-owned power utility Union Electrica (UNE) said the problems were addressed on Tuesday night, it anticipated that 16 percent of the country would suffer outages on Wednesday during times of peak consumption (afternoon/night).

Heat from wildfires that damaged high-voltage lines caused this most recent major disruption to electricity service, the third in nine days, authorities said.

This month’s blackouts ended a brief period of uninterrupted service in December and January, when lower temperatures led to a drop in the use of fans and air conditioners and a reduction in households’ electricity consumption.

They also have brought renewed attention to a problem that has become habitual and exasperated the population on the island, where some blackouts last year lasted more than 12 hours a day.

The last two large anti-government protests in Cuba – in July 2021 and at the end of September 2022 (following the passage of Hurricane Ian) – erupted amid widespread electricity crises.

The government said a few weeks ago that power cuts would occur through May while maintenance work is carried out at eight thermoelectric plants, but it said they would last a maximum of three hours per day.

The government’s goal is to avoid a critical situation in the summer, when households increase their electricity consumption.

Cuba also has leased two new floating power plants from Turkish energy company Karadeniz Holding since November, bringing to eight the number of so-called powerships it has brought into service.

Experts consulted by Efe said Cuba’s electricity system is obsolete and that the Cuban government’s latest measures do not get to the root of the problem.

“The situation worries me because a collapse of the system could be on the horizon,” Jorge Piñon, a senior research fellow at the University of Texas’ Energy Institute, told Efe.

He said the government is only putting a band-aid on the problem with short-term solutions like the floating powerships, adding that the island is failing to address the underlying structural issue – its run-down power plants and grid.

Cuban economist Tamarys L. Bahamonde echoed those remarks. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

“We’re seeing the results of a national electrical system that’s been in operation for more than 40 years with little maintenance and with technology that is, in a certain sense, obsolete,” she told Efe.

In remarks on state television on Feb. 16, Energy and Mines Minister Vicente de la O Levy said Cuba needs “some $250 million annually” to keep the grid operating normally, not including the cost of fuel imports, which cost $1.7 billion in 2022.

Piñon, for his part, estimated that a total overhaul of Cuba’s electrical system would require an investment of $10 billion.

Both Bahamonde and Piñon recommended that the Caribbean country cease its reliance on fossil fuels – the source of 95 percent of the electricity consumed in Cuba – and instead switch to green alternatives, although they lamented the lack of a “coherent and long-term” plan.

In that regard, Cuba’s energy and mines minister says ending the island’s dependence on fossil fuels would be the “definitive solution to the energy issue.”

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