“C’mon, Mario! Let’s get to the car!” I shouted through the collar of my coat as the winter winds picked up. The temperature was already in the single digits.
I turned around to see him just standing there, frozen still, looking down at the ground. What is he doing? I thought. My fingers were numb and I was feeling a bit impatient.
“Is this ice?!” He called out to me. I stopped and smiled, laughing at my impatience in the face of his childlike wonder.
“Yes, that’s ice!” He tested the frozen puddle with his foot, sliding it carefully over the unfamiliar glassy surface and handed me his camera so I could take a photo of him standing on solidified water. Then we both ran to the car to get out of the cold.
It was January 7, 2015. Mario had just arrived in Burlington Vermont from Cuba, and he had never experienced temperatures below freezing. I met him almost four years prior to this visit when I traveled to Cuba on a tour with other energy efficiency and renewable energy professionals. The tour was organized by Solar Energy International, a renewable energy school for which I taught a week-long sustainability class, with travel logistics provided by Global Exchange. Mario is a specialist in Technology and Environmental Information at the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment in Havana. He was one of our professional connections and guide for the Havana portion of our delegation, where he helped us to understand how Cuba responded to the economic collapse of their best trade ally, the old Soviet Union. Their ruin quickly led to Cuba’s own economic collapse in 1989, a time they euphemistically refer to as The Special Period (it was essentially a depression). Things were hard enough already with the U.S. embargo in place since 1960, and now Cuba had lost over three-quarters of its oil imports. Over the next four years, energy use in the country dropped by half.
While in Cuba, we visited various cultural and energy related sites, and were introduced to the many fine vices offered for pleasure. These included Havana Club dark aged rum, and fine tobacco rolled into cigars and properly lit with a wooden stick, not a match. A burning match will introduce an unacceptable sulfur taste to the smoker.
Poverty is rampant, opportunities limited, and the results of dire circumstance are partly manifested in acts of desperation like scams and prostitution. There is much potential for social and economic growth in a developed Cuba, free of the U.S. trade embargo. Despite hardships, Cubans retain a strong community spirit and a powerful desire to achieve. To put a mildly positive spin on the result of the embargo, one could say that ‘poverty preserves’. Cuba was once the playground of the U.S. and one development plan from the late 1950s would have lined the coast with hotels and casinos. The existing seafront promenade in Havana along el Malecon is a regular gathering place for many people. On the other hand, poverty destroys. Havana loses several buildings every day due to neglect. Eighty percent of Havana was built during the first half of the 20th century, and much of it went up in a hurry. As these older buildings crumble, they are replaced by the government with cinder block row housing. All housing in Cuba is government housing. Historic Old Havana’s buildings date some 500 years back to Spanish occupation and are being actively restored, or at least spared from ruin. With improving relations between Cuba and the U.S., there is an opportunity for thoughtful, planned growth. Mario remains determined that Cuba will not lose its identity; that the culture will thrive, and change will be slow, considered, and deliberate as outside investment opportunities increase.
Among all the people we spoke with, nobody really understood what the embargo is all about. Lasting over 50 years, the U.S. led embargo is the longest act of aggression in modern history. A substantial part of the problem seems to be disgruntled and disenfranchised Cubans in Florida, and perhaps they are justified in holding a grudge against the Castro regime. Trying to explain to Cubans about the Electoral College and the powerful place Florida holds in the policy making of the entire country is met with confusion. How could this be so in America? Everywhere we went, people implored us, “isn’t there something you can do?” Cuban people consistently cite only five desires:
- Let Cuba live
- End the blockade
- Stop spending counter revolutionary money in Cuba
- Free the Cuban 5 (done in late 2014)
- Accept our differences, be engaged as friends
I will add to this list the need for high speed internet access! The country currently lives with the equivalent of dial-up speeds and only a small part of the population has any access at all. Getting online was so painful that after two days of attempting to communicate with family and friends, I gave up. Ten days in the dark. Try it sometime, it’s an oddly debilitating freedom.
There were a number of meetings with businesses and the electric utility, a visit to the country's sole photovoltaic (solar electric or PV) panel manufacturing facility, and a tour of a community hydroelectric generating station.
This hydro power plant uses a 30 kilowatt Russian generator to power a village of 57 homes. For perspective, 30 kilowatts would be enough to power three to five average homes in the U.S. The school in this village had PV panels and garners power priority so that when power is low, the community can at least meet some basic needs with the school serving as community center. This autonomous approach to power generator is uncommon in Cuba as there are few hydroeletric projects, and 95% of the population is connected to the national power grid. Ninety five percent of electric power produced is from oil-fired generators, with most of the remainder produced from sugar cane waste, or bagasse.
Our guides and hosts often answered our questions with what became almost a joke, if it had not been true. "It's Complicated." Ask a question and there often is no clear answer. Everything in Cuba is complicated. The country is a political football and daily life changes in reaction to political events. There are two forms of currency, and daily encumbrances with the embargo hinder infrastructure repairs due to lack of parts and supplies. Jesus, our tour guide, told us “you can’t understand what it’s like to live here after only a week. Cubans are re-inventing things every day and we don’t even know what tomorrow will bring. It’s like untangling a bowl of spaghetti, you can pull out one noodle but you still have a bowl of spaghetti.”
In 2014, Mario was invited to visit to the U.S. to share his experience and learn from ours as a guest of the non-profit organization Community Solutions. I had given Mario copies of my books The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook, and The Home Energy Diet, and we kept in touch on a professional level over the years. He reached out in advance of his trip and now it was my turn to play the host, at least for the Vermont portion of his travels. When you live in a place, you never seem to do the things the tourists do unless you have company, and this would be a great excuse to visit some of the attractions I had always wanted to visit in Vermont. Thus was borne the First International Vermont Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Exploration Tour. I reached out to colleagues for thoughts and recommendations, and pared the long list down to a more manageable three-day tour. Vermont is a leader in many ways throughout the energy sphere in the U.S. and the accompanying entrepreneurial spirit we encountered was truly inspiring.
Our first visit was a home inspection where an air-source heat pump was recently installed. The concept of intentional year-round space conditioning is foreign enough to a native of the Caribbean region, but to consider that there is enough heat to squeeze out of the air with the temperature hovering around 0°F, and then deliver it to the indoors at a temperature of around 100°F seemed implausible! The proof was in the infrared thermal imaging camera Mario held for the first time. A $3,000 electronic test instrument is not an option in the Cuban economy.
On our walk across the parking lot to lunch at Burlington’s South End Kitchen, he insisted that I take an infrared photo of his freezing cold cheek.
We were joined at lunch by several friends and colleagues, all welcoming him to America, asking questions and trading stories. Mario reminded us to be careful about calling ourselves Americans. “I am also American, as is everyone living throughout North, South, Central, and Latin America.” The obvious is not always so without the proper perspective.
After lunch with colleagues, we spoke with the Burlington Electric Department to explore how they are able to claim 100 percent renewable energy generation through wind, solar, and biomass energy production and purchase contracts. An increasing renewable energy portfolio is a goal of many states and utilities in response to customer demand. A renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS) means that the utility is producing and/or buying a certain percentage of energy from renewable sources (imposed or voluntary) to meet their customer’s electrical demand. Investing in renewables is beneficial in many ways across the economy, but there is a fair amount of free-market smoke and mirrors behind the curtains of this concept because the regional electric grid hosts many types of generators fueled by gas, oil, nuclear, and renewable energies. How much of what source is in the mix at any given time involves complex minute-by-minute accounting that makes it impossible to know where the electrons powering your home really come from.
Electricity is bought and sold each day, each hour, based on availability and market cost. As demand increases (during peak use hours or weather extremes), the cost to purchase the commodity, in this case electricity, also increases. Add to this accounting the notion of Renewable Energy Credits , or RECs (a unit of one megawatt-hour of renewably generated electricity) and things get confusing fast. If a utility owns a renewable energy generator such as a solar, wind, or biomass power plant, the power can be used by the utility that owns that resource, or it can be sold as a REC to other utilities trying to meet their own RPS requirements. Whether to sell, keep, or buy RECs depends on energy demand and market price. This is true for all power generators, but the REC twist adds an additional element of decision making. In some cases, a large electrical generator (such as a nuclear power plant) may actually pay into the power market so that they avoid a costly facility shut down and restart if they are underbid by another supplier. In other words, they are paying – not earning – to stay in the power market. You, the end user of this commodity, are insulated from all this fluctuation and your local utility needs a skilled negotiation and accounting team to survive the ups and downs. This is a difficult enough concept for a free-market economist to come to grips with; imagine the perspective of a native from a small island nation where everything needs to be accountable, cost-effective, and transparent in order to exist at all. “Show me the renewable electrons! I want to know what is powering my home!” says the islander. “Impossible!” says the free market power manager. “Ridiculous!” is the reply with the laughter of absurd disbelief from all.
While I don’t live on an island, I do live off the power grid with solar, wind, wood, biodiesel, and sometimes even homemade biogas. In my attempt to move further away from fossil fuels, I’ve developed a direct, hands-on relationship with the energy harnessed from nature and used to meet my family’s needs. In that sense, the notion of having finite resources is a daily consideration and expectations need to be managed around resource availability.
Burlington Electric’s manager of power supply took us to to Winooski One, a 7.4 megawatt hydro generator. The river was frozen on the surface but under the ice, liquid water flowed through the turbines. Mario braved the cold and frozen fingers to take photos and video of this site, amazed at the power in the apparently frozen river. Hydro resources in Cuba are few and far between as there isn’t the combination of water quantity and elevation required to produce a substantial amount of power.
Then on to the nearby Mcneill Biomass Power Plant where 1,700 tons of woodchips are burned each day to generate 50 megawatts of electricity. As with Winooski One, some of the power produced is sold as RECs, and some to the local grid. Of course, all the electrons it produces are mixed in with all the other electrons produced elsewhere. The plant operator showed us a live feed of the regional market price to purchase a megawatt hour (one million watt-hours or one thousand kilowatt-hours). As temperatures were predicted to dip to record lows on this night, the wholesale cost of electricity was on the rise as power planners scrambled to ensure that the extra demand would be met.
The next morning it was -21°F (-29°C), a full 30 degrees C colder than Mario had ever experienced, and to which he jokingly believed he could claim a national record for surviving. "Below 5 degrees C, everybody stays home. If you send your children out when it's that cold, it would be considered child abuse!" We entertained him with cold weather tricks like blowing soap bubbles that quickly freeze and can be held in the hand, then tossing a pot full of boiling hot water up into the cold air to watch it evaporate instantly into a cloud. He provided a bit of unintentional entertainment to his hosts as well. Watching a grown man put on winter gear for the first time balances a line between excruciating and comical. If you’ve ever watched a young child bundle up for winter and try to make the school bus on time, you’ll have a feeling for this. His borrowed boots, jacket, hat, and gloves fit well but took lots of time and energy to install on his body. Then there was the checklist of all the things required for the day – phone, notepad, pen, camera; each assigned to a pocket. “This is ridiculous!” he laughed. Winter’s second skin is second nature to a New Englander, but I was beginning to agree with him on this point.
I turned the car’s internal and seat heaters all the way up to their respective Caribbean climate settings and headed north with Mario still reeling from the extreme cold. Almost immediately he called a friend in Florida to claim bragging rights to the experience. First stop was Washington Electric Coop, a member-owned electric company and the country’s most rural electric utility in the sense that it has fewer customers for every mile of electrical transmission line. WEC has a large renewable energy portfolio and our goal was to visit their landfill gas recovery power plant in Coventry.
This system consists of an active landfill with buried pipes to collect the methane gas produced by decaying organic material. The gas is piped to the power house where it is first scrubbed of impurities and then delivered to five diesel engines, each of which is connected to a 1.6 megawatt generator. Each year, this power plant delivers about two-thirds of the coop’s electrical needs from garbage, while preventing the powerful greenhouse gas methane, from entering the environment.
Along the way, we stopped to take photos of landscape and local scenes. Mario looked out the car window and asked if that wide open expanse of snow was a lake or a field. We pulled into the parking area where I pointed to the sign that called out the lake’s name, jumped out of the car and ran onto the frozen surface with Mario yelling “NO!” I cleared away the snow so he could see the frozen water below, jumped up and down a few times, and he finally came out to join me. “This is like a different world!” he exclaimed. “I’m in a cosmonaut suit on another planet!” After several photos and experiments with walking on water that was so thick you could drive a car on it, we were on our way again.
Lunch today was at the Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center in Newport, where local food and beer are available for sampling and purchase. Our meal was expertly prepared by the Brown Dog Bistro. At this point, I felt comfortable enough to ask Mario a personal question about the Cuban experience. I knew what I wanted to ask, but didn’t know quite how to phrase it. And I didn’t think it would make us late for our next stop. In retrospect, we probably needed a few more drinks before I launched into this.
“What is it like to be a Cuban” I began tentatively, searching for the right words “in a world where you are the international underdog?” After over 50 years of the U.S. led embargo that has kept their economy in near ruin, Cubans have gained a level of global empathy for their plight. Their shared struggles have only served to make them a stronger island community, and I wanted to know how that experience has shaped him as he travels into the world with almost no budget. I imagined his story to be something similar to those many American (OK, North American) college students who once traveled the world on a shoe string, and to my own experience of getting on my bicycle as a young man with only a sleeping bag, tent, bags of gorp, and a probable destination in mind. These times of throwing yourself into the world and reveling in its unpredictable unfolding are often described as magical. People of the world welcome the open-hearted traveler. Language and cultural barriers quickly became apparent. “What do you mean? What are you trying to say?” he asked. “Just tell me what you are trying to say and I will tell you.” I struggled for more words.
“When I go out into the world as an American” I said “I go with a plan, a credit card, and an attitude. I want to go someplace to have an experience, and I pay as I go. It’s expensive to be an American!”
“Listen, do you want me to pay for my lunch? Is that what you’re asking? I have a little bit of money, but you know I only make $40 a month! You spend that on one meal here.”
“That’s not what I mean!” I tried to downplay my embarrassment at this misunderstanding.
“Before I came here, you asked me if I had a stipend, and I said no. I knew then that you did not understand about Cuba. I would like to travel and choose the experiences to have on my own terms, but I can’t. I’m here as a guest of Community Solutions, who have provided me with transportation and I hope to earn a little cash for my professional speaking engagements. I am only here in Vermont because of you, I am relying solely upon you while I’m here because we made a professional connection several years ago.” Now I was really feeling bad, I had embarrassed him.
I tried again, taking a deep breath. “I think you’ve hit on it, Mario. You rely on your connections, I rely on my credit card. There is a cultural difference there, a different way of being in the world. How does it feel to go out into the world relying only on the trust of friends and colleagues? How can you be sure things will keep opening up for you?” This time he got my meaning and I suddenly, sharply, realized that I was a long way from that kid on the bicycle of my past.
“Look around you. The windows are closed. Outside, people have their heads down with their chins in their collars to stay warm. In Cuba, our windows are open. We are in the community all day and all night. We are all neighbors. We hitchhike everywhere, and everybody stops for us. I don’t call my friends before I visit, and when I don’t drop in on them for a while, I am in trouble with them! We trust each other, that is all we have. That is how I live my life. I have to trust people.”
“It’s like a different planet.” I said. “You go through the world with connections, trust, and graciousness.
”A different planet.”
“I’ll call your perspective the ‘open window theory.’” I knew this intellectually, that Cuba has a social economy not a monetary economy, but this interaction drove it home for me in a way that I could feel, and that makes me think that maybe I finally ‘get’ Cuba. North Americans use money to insulate themselves against a social economy. Riches manifest in many forms and translate into how we live in the world.
“Open window theory!” We shared a laugh, finished up and sped off to our next stop, one I was particularly looking forward to.
Jasper Hill Farm is a clandestine treasure that you could drive right by even if you had a map and GPS (forget about cell service here). This is a success story of two brothers who started with 40 dairy cows and went on to win the title of “World's Best Unpasteurized Cheese" for their Bayley Hazen Blue at the 2014 World Cheese Awards in London. Here you can see the entire process of making cheese from grass to cow to milk to cheese. The crew constructed underground cheese aging caves where each cave is specifically controlled for environment and inoculated with the right culture.
They didn’t stop at great cheese though; Andy and Mateo are working to close the loop from food to energy by converting the farm’s waste products to energy in their Green Machine. Cow manure is separated into liquids and solids. The solids are composted, the heat generated from decomposition is used to heat the green house, and composted manure fertilizes the soil. The liquids are combined with waste whey from the cheese making process and put into an anaerobic digester to produce methane gas that is burned to heat water. On this record breaking day of cold, we also enjoyed fresh greens from the greenhouse which gains heat from both the sun and from the manure composting on the other side of a mass wall that stores and re-distributes the absorbed heat.
That night at dinner Mario said “I’m worried that I’m not sweating. It’s bad for the skin.” Another hidden-in-plain-sight difference in what’s engrained in us as ‘normal’. When I was in Cuba, I didn’t stop sweating and found it annoying and uncomfortable.“You are sweating” we told him. “You just don’t feel it because the air is so dry in the winter that sweat evaporates before it has a chance to bead up.” I was reminded of my southern California cousins who came to live in New York City for a summer. They never sweat in their home climate and were uncomfortable and embarrassed at how they were constantly sweating in the unfamiliar east coast humidity.
Friday, our last day together, would be a long one. After an extended breakfast conversation came the ‘ridiculous’ process of dressing for winter. We were late before we left and this day was already over-planned. I wanted to do it all! I don’t know how I ended up as a tour guide and event planner, I’m usually the one who’s late for everything and now find myself in the unnatural role of timekeeper and whip cracker. I was very aware of taking up people’s time during their workday, and continuously surprised at their understanding welcome despite our consistent lateness. I wondered why we do it. Our lives are so busy, bills keep coming in, clients are waiting, and nobody stood to earn anything from our visits. As an introvert, I am aware of my shortcomings around social graces, but I was getting an education in building a social economy of my own, learning from the grace of both my guest and our hosts.
Better World Workshop
On the way to The Better World Workshop in Bradford VT I took a wrong turn on a dirt road. Ahead was a hitchhiker and Mario asked if lots of people hitch rides here. “Maybe not as much as they once did.” I replied. “In Cuba, everybody hitches a ride and everybody picks up riders, all the time, every day.” I recalled that our tour busses and taxis in Cuba were always stopping to pick people up. We picked up the rider who set us down the right road to Bradford.
Engineer Carl Bielenberg has been developing biomass based renewable energy systems for nearly thirty years. At the Better World Workshop, he is currently developing a small biomass gasification system for rural villages in developing countries called the Village Industrial Power (VIP) generator.
Gasification is the process of heating biomass to combustible temperatures and controlling the air to the combustion chamber so that the material doesn’t burst into flames. Controlling combustion in this way allows for an extremely clean, efficient, smoke-free source of heat. The VIP burns a variety of biomass types ranging from wood to corn, or even nut hulls, making it a versatile power producer in almost any region of the world. The heat produced is used to operate a simple steam engine that powers a 10,000 watt electrical generator, while waste heat is used to heat water.
South of Bradford, and on the way to our next stop, is the King Arthur Flour baking center in Norwich Vermont where we enjoyed a delicious lunch from their café. As we pulled into the parking space he asked "What is that noise? It sounds like it's coming from the car." I sighed inside, because I hadn't told him that the car had suddenly lost power and the engine light was on. Not hearing anything unusual, I asked him what it sounded like. "A squeaking sound." All I had to offer was an unknowing shrug and sighed to myself. Walking across the parking lot after lunch we stopped to wait as a car backed out of its spot. "That's the sound I heard!" he exclaimed, pointing at the front tire. It was the sound a tire makes as it slowly rolls over fresh snow. We both laughed, but I still didn't know why the engine light was on. While he was busy talking to Carl about the VIP I slipped out to get the error code off my OBDC scanner. Vague as usual. Was it the $25 fix or the $900 fix? In the end, it was right in the middle. With 230k miles on my VW Jetta TDI, repairs are inevitable, but the maintenance cost is still less than new car payments.
Energy Innovation Center
At Green Mountain Power’s Energy Innovation Center in Rutland Vermont, we meet with a large portion of GMP staff, all eager to share their experiences and to hear Mario’s. The EIC is more than just a workspace; it’s a place to put words into action.
We learned about GMPs all-encompassing energy savings efforts that range from total home and lifestyle energy makeovers, to their unique “Cow-Power” energy service. Cow-Power involves investing in on-farm methane digesters for electricity generation, and providing that power at a premium cost to customers who want to support clean energy. The premium payments go directly to help offset the cost of building the processing facility.
After our meeting, we toured the renovated historic building that was, in itself, a huge investment in a downtown that desperately needed the encouragement provided by this project. The education center showcases energy efficiency and renewable energy projects promoted by the utility, including a talking cow that tells the Cow-Power story. The building sports solar electric panels, a small wind generator, super-efficient windows and insulation, cold-climate air-source heat pumps, and an Ice Bear energy storage air conditioning system. The Ice Bear use off-peak electricity to make ice that can be used to provide cooling during peak power times, thus reducing energy demand (and cost) for midday air conditioning needs.
On Friday evening, Mario finally delivered his own message to an engaged and curious crowd in White River Junction. The event was sponsored by two non-profit institutions: New Community Project, and The Center for Transformational Practice. He spoke about Cuba’s energy system and efficiency efforts that were quickly instituted during the difficult Special Period. These reforms and austerity measures lead to Cuba’s Energy Revolution in 2006, which has now become a model to the rest of the world for delivering energy efficiency and renewable energy, along with other sustainable practices such as organic farming. Mario told personal stories of having no power for 18 hours or more every day. Nobody knew when the power would be on. Mosquitos and sweltering heat drove families out of their homes at night where they would also find and commiserate with neighbors in the same predicament. In stark contrast to the abundance of the North American lifestyle, there were food shortages and water was scarce. Breakfast was often whatever fruit was in season, then off to work. A different planet. All because of a ridiculous embargo.
Today, Cuba is slowly developing infrastructure with modest investments from the European Union and Latin America. Ninety five percent of the eleven million inhabitants have electricity. Tourism is a big part of the economy, but cannot currently support the influx of visitors that would occur with relaxed U.S. policy. There is a small photovoltaic panel manufacturing facility, a growing medical industry with quality health care and a Doctors-for-oil trade arrangement with Venezuela (human labor is considered a national commodity, a resource to be sold or traded), farmers are revered, there is active oil exploration off the coast. A thriving educational system considers future needs and delivers knowledge that will be required at the time students graduate because the government is required to provide a job to citizens. The stakes are high. Universities are focused on energy, technology, and biotech. Kids have never seen an incandescent light bulb, bring recyclables to school, and most schools have community gardens. Cubans are educated, engaged, motivated to join the world economy, nimble, and readily able to re-invent themselves.
When we arrived home that evening, the temperature had warmed into the 20s and even Mario said that it didn’t feel so cold now. Not quite open-window temps, but we stood in the driveway and threw snowballs in our cosmonaut suits until our hands were numb.