Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Lights Shine at Night in Remote Los Tumbos

Patricia Grogg* - Tierramérica

PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba, Dec 5 2003 (IPS) - The families of the Cuban community of Los Tumbos have replaced their candles with clean-energy, bright lights – and now children are learning more, baseball games are followed on television and residents tap their feet to music playing on the radio.

Everyone in Los Tumbos agrees that life is incomparably better than three years ago, when the lack of electricity meant that residents settled in for the night at an early hour.

Life in this small town has since been transformed by the arrival of solar energy.

"Just imagine, before there was no choice but to go to bed at nine o’clock at night," says Marisol Chile, 31, in a conversation with Tierramérica about the changes in her village of 100 people since solar panels were installed and began to provide electricity.

To reach this small coffee-growing community in the mountains of Pinar del Río province, located 140 km west of Havana, one must climb many hills.

The sun that bathes the green surroundings indicates that this source of renewable energy is the ideal solution for the town, which is a long way from the country’s electrical grid.

The primary school was the first to benefit from the solar panels, which convert the sun’s energy into electricity. Now the classroom is illuminated by light bulbs and a television, a video-tape player and a computer are plugged in, expanding the students’ educational horizons, say the teachers.

Next in line was a medical office, where the solar installation feeds a TV, refrigerator, radio communications and 12 lights – including in the homes of the town’s doctor and nurse.

The residents hope a computer will soon round out the professional equipment at the clinic, which now has instruments that in the past would have been useless due to lack of electricity.

In each of the 23 homes in the village, a 12-volt solar panel has been installed, connected to a high-efficiency light bulb and a battery sufficient for five hours. A small radio rounds out the set of equipment that the government provided each family, free of charge.

The panel consists of interconnected solar cells that absorb heat and the sun’s rays and convert them into electricity. The interconnectivity ensures constant voltage.

The initiative is being carried out by the division of Ecosol Solar, of the state-run company Copextel, which is in charge of maintenance and replacement parts.

"Before, everything was lamplight and candlelight. Just look how pretty this electric light shines," laughs Alfreda Bocourt, a 54-year-old mother of six, in charge of cleaning at the town medical office.

To watch television, Bocourt and her neighbours cross the street to the community hall, where there is also a video player. The centre has seating for 30 people.

These changes have led to greater communication among the people of Los Tumbos, who are better informed, have more issues to talk about, and greater interest in the future of the community, agree the residents themselves.

"People feel more motivated to work, more united. Before, they wouldn’t come to the centre very often. Now they come almost every day. There has been a change for the better," says teacher Niuri Pérez.

She says she has seen dramatic progress in the academic performance of the students, particularly in their oral and written work. "The audio-visual media help a lot," she adds.

The mountainous zones of this Caribbean island cover some 19,000 square km and are populated by approximately 800,000 people. Accessibility is difficult for nearly all communities in these areas.

For the remote populations in Cuba, alternative approaches are needed and are being implemented, such as solar energy or small hydroelectric plants.

The country’s electricity grid covers 95 percent of the Cuban population of 11.2 million people. For the remaining five percent, different types of renewable or environmentally friendly energy sources are the optimal solution.

In the last three years, more than 2,300 primary schools in rural and mountainous areas have been set up with solar power.

Also receiving electricity have been 400 rural sanitation stations and nearly 2,000 community centres, which have been provided with televisions.

The solar panels produced in Cuba – with components imported from Spain or Germany -are the best option for far-flung towns or remote homes, say experts.

Some 100,000 Cuban households without electricity stand to see their lifestyles transformed by solar energy. The non-governmental organisation Cubasolar, which participates in the installation of solar panel and energy systems, has plans to provide the options of nighttime illumination, and television and computers to the extent that finances permit.

(* Originally published Nov. 29 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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