The Cubans Who Taught Us About Clean Energy
Maybe you travel for the beaches and the views. Maybe it’s for the food. But did you know that with a little planning and local assistance, you could use your travels to teach your friends about clean energy? Perhaps your travels could inspire them to live differently and even influence energy policy.
We are Vittoria Energy Expedition, a clean energy exploration team with an outdoor adventure spirit. Just weeks before the U.S. banned maritime travel to Cuba, we sailed our solar-battery boat from Key West to Havana with the goal of learning how coastal communities are pursuing freedom from traditional electricity sources and unreliable grids. In recent years, the country has been pursuing a goal to further enhance energy resilience by generating a quarter of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Our team mounted a field expedition to explore their progress, highlighting personal stories and everyday impacts of this latest Cuban revolution.
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Most of our Cuban journey took place in Viñales, a small town on the western part of the island known for its rugged beauty and traditional farming. Here, we collected a wealth of clean energy information from some unexpected sources–a fearless mountain climber, two taxistas, and a welcoming resident of the beautiful valley. The following are stories of our encounters with these edifying individuals.
Yaro, the climber
When we arrived in Viñales, we knew there were clean energy stories but didn’t know where to find them. Satellite images of Cuba are grainy, so an eye in the sky wasn’t an option. Google searching “solar field” or “wind turbine” was equally imprecise.
We had exhausted the limits of our outreach to diplomats, business officials, and local energy experts. Being there in person to chase down local knowledge seemed like the best and only option.
One of our crew, Chad, had contacted a local guide, Yaro, to organize some cliff-side team building. On our first night, Yaro met us in the courtyard of the town’s central church and took us to a nearby restaurant to enjoy ropa vieja and drinks. We talked about climbing for a few minutes but quickly switched to our main agenda—the fact that we were desperate to find some elusive solar panels.
Yaro laughed a lot and knew everyone in town. He was the unofficial mayor of Viñales. His English was strong, probably thanks to the host of international climbing enthusiasts he had guided over the years. He was open-minded and knowledgeable. Most importantly, he was willing to help us. Our work interested him, and he could see that we were an earnest, but a disoriented group of adventurers.
If you’re like us and seeking information, someone like Yaro is perfect. During a single conversation with him, we picked up more information than we did from months of internet research and email correspondence.
He taught us that in 2008, the island faced one of its worst energy crises when Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, as well as Tropical Storm Fay, tore apart the central grid. Vowing to address this problem, they kicked off a national movement to build distributed regional power hubs that could provide local electricity when the main grid goes down. Today, Cuba boasts one of the most distributed energy systems in the world.
One site that Yaro thought we would find particularly interesting was a 2 MW field of solar panels in nearby Pinar del Río. That would be our first expedition.
Our Editors pick:
The man in the purple, vintage Chevy
The giant solar farm was our most exhilarating visit. We knew we could get in big trouble for what we were about to do. Filming large energy projects in Cuba requires government permits and escorts – something we had pursued for years through the Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC, but to no avail. We would rely instead on improvisation and discretion.
On the outskirts of Viñales, we piled into a vintage Chevrolet. We didn’t tell the driver anything about our visit. We just pointed to the map, and he nodded understandingly. It was a clean transaction with no questions.
As we planned the mission in the car, we spoke softly and in code to avoid raising alarms with the driver. The drone was referred to as the “bird” or “Sheila”. The solar panels were the “target”.
When we arrived, we broke into groups. Two of us made up the drone team — one pilot and one standing guard. The other three filmed around the fenced-in solar panels and positioned the getaway car. Each of us was captivated. This was one of the biggest installations on the island, with enough juice to power almost 3,000 Cuban customers! Here’s the math: 2,000kW (the 2MW solar field) * 5.5 hours per day of productive solar exposure (SolarGIS.info) = 11,000kWh / 3.855kWh of electricity consumed daily per capita (WorldData.info) = 2,853.
Suddenly, the mission came to a stop when a man in military fatigues spotted the drone. As he started following the “bird,” we knew it was time to bolt. We quickly realized, however, there was no way to recover Sheila incognito, so we all dove into the car and hurried off with the drone still airborne. A mile down the road, we landed and collected that drone faster than a pit stop at the Daytona 500.
For us, this was a thrilling close call. For the taxista, it was a long day with sweaty tourists that were giddy about filming a field. After we left, perhaps he gave more consideration to retirement.
Ofelia, the valley resident
Our most picturesque visit was the Valle de Viñales, a UNESCO world heritage site celebrated across the planet for its natural beauty. Yaro told us that this area was a clean energy gem, a community of Cubans living off the grid, many using just solar and batteries to power their lives.
As we turned into the valley, a few panels glistened on the roof of the first house. Quickly, more and more panels came into view. For our group of clean energy explorers, this was Nirvana.
We captured some videos and photos but realized we had no idea how this community came to be. There were few locals in sight to give us the story, and it was getting late. As Team Sheila packed up the drone from a much calmer flight, Nathan and Chad rushed over and explained that they’d found a resident to give us the scoop.
Her name was Ofelia, and she kindly invited our group of camera-wielding hikers into her home. She had four solar panels on the roof and batteries to hold the charge. Ofelia told us that not long after the storms of 2008, a Frenchman who had been coming to the area decided to gift 50 panels to the residents. Before that time, noisy generators and smoky fires powered the valley. Now, she had a silent system that electrified all of the major appliances in her house — TV, lights, and kitchen equipment. For us, this was interview gold–you can see more from this on here.
If you ever travel to the Valle de Viñales, know that it is not only beautiful but powered by solar.
Lazaro, the most unhurried driver
Our last big visit in Viñales was to a presa, or dam. Of our visits, this was the slowest. Frustratingly so. It was a Sunday so most taxi drivers were off, or unable to accommodate our group of five. When we finally found a driver, it seemed he was the most unhurried of them all.
Lazaro was an older man and gently motioned us to his red convertible taxi. It took him five minutes to readjust the mirrors, fasten his seatbelt, and, of course, bid farewell to his friends. When we attempted to explain our dam plan in Spanish, he stared blankly.
Perhaps he didn’t understand why tourists would want to go see such a trite thing when there were majestic mountains and tasty restaurants to experience. Perhaps we were pronouncing the word wrong, and he wondered why we kept repeating “printing press.” We may never know.
Eventually, we remembered that Yaro had mentioned the town of Ancón. Lazaro agreed to take us in that direction. His cab rumbled slowly along the country road, never breaking 30 miles per hour. Rounding a bend, we spotted the dam and asked Lazaro to pull over. We excitedly hopped out only to learn that there were no fenced-off turbines or looming guards as expected. In fact, there seemed to be no electricity at all! Just a concrete slab and one long, rusty pipe. Lazaro watched us from a distance as we traipsed through the woods, following the small stream and that crumbling pipe.
Our fruitless hour-long search across back yards and thick rainforest yielded nothing. Thankfully, local guidance saved the day once again as amused onlookers pointed us toward an unassuming building down the round. This was it, our hydroelectric El Dorado.
The welcoming proprietor took us on a quick tour – no photos, please – and we learned that their single 30kW turbine had been providing power to the area’s residents for nearly a century. Built in 1920, this station was still feeding electricity into the local grid using an underwater diversion culvert, a giant structure on a hill that somehow eluded our crack investigative team.
Over lunch, the ever-so-patient Lazaro was amused to learn more about us when Andrew’s valiant translation attempts finally landed. His excitement about our adventure made the ride back to Viñales more enjoyable, and 30 miles per hour wasn’t so bad after all.
CubaSolar, the experts
In addition to our Viñales journey, we spent time in Havana where we met the “godfathers” of Cuba’s renewable energy movement—the originators of a group called CubaSolar. Unique among Cuban organizations, CubaSolar is a citizen-led initiative that has been promoting renewable energy since the 1990s. Through public education and government outreach, they have been a driving force in the country advocating for solar and other sustainable technologies.
It all came together on our last day in Cuba, and we were exhausted. Our team had spent the morning busing from Viñales to Havana after a bit too much local nightlife. As the Viazul bus wound through Cuba’s postcard countryside, we bobbed and weaved across tobacco fields and sugar cane. Cruel reminders of the previous night.
Arriving in Havana, we hurried off to our meeting at an old house above the city. At the door, two gentlemen greeted us. Their wisdom was immediately apparent. They were Dr. Luis Berriz, the group’s founder and living history, and Bruno Henriquez, one of the original CubaSolar members and part-time radio personality.
This eclectic house was something to marvel, filled with maps, dusty tomes, gifts from visitors across the world, and small tools for scientific demonstrations. We sat at a round table discussing our seafaring solar voyage and sharing recent publications about the journey.
They were thrilled by our solar-electric boat and Luis explained that we are “the same,” suggesting that Vittoria is an isolated island like Cuba, and, as islands, we must both harness local energy resources. It’s a parallel we’ve often used ourselves, so it was great to hear our new friends making this point.
Comparing Vittoria’s energy challenges with Cuba’s, Luis told us about his own handmade solar-battery system which is nearly identical to ours. With just about the same solar, battery and inverter equipment, Luis powers his home and even saves some energy for emergencies. This approach, he said, should be a solution across Cuba. Today, it is not widespread but CubaSolar is making a strong argument with Luis’s resilient, energy-independent home.
Beyond this, we spoke more on Cuba’s big picture energy landscape, learning how Luis and Bruno envision a further expansion of utility-scale renewables, especially wind and solar. But perhaps the highlight was our rooftop tour through CubaSolar’s makeshift solar laboratory, complete with thermal water heaters, photovoltaic panels and rows of reflective CDs that we still don’t totally understand.
As our visit came to a close, we recognized the hurdles still facing Cuba’s renewable energy aspirations, but also sensed exciting possibilities with CubaSolar pushing the movement. Like Vittoria’s brutal 2,000 mile journey from Washington, DC to Key West and Havana, a stubborn determination will be the key to success.
Our adventure would have been misguided and empty without these unexpected and local sources. As with many explorers, we had grandiose ideas and impatience about achieving our goals. Thanks to their goodwill, we explored off the beaten path—to destinations where few tourists venture. We droned over a giant solar farm, learned the story behind an off-grid renewable community, wandered through lush rainforest to find a hydroelectric station, and met the leaders of Cuba’s latest energy revolution.
Andrew and Nathan are co-founders of Vittoria Energy Expedition, a travel-inspired nonprofit exploring energy solutions through outdoor adventure. Andrew is currently pursuing his Master’s in Sustainability Studies at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Asheville, NC. Nathan is based in South Africa, researching solar microgrids at the University of Cape Town.