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Cuba's Energy Revolution Comes With Health Risks

In other countries, diesel generators are used for emergencies, but in Cuba they are part of the state's "dispersed generation" power grid.
By Miriam Herrera Calvo

Since 2005, diesel generators have sprung up all across Cuba as part of a policy of making power production more efficient and reliable. There is a downside, though – people living beside them say their health has suffered.

In Loma Modelo, a neighbourhood of the capital Havana, generators are located only metres away from residential housing. Healthcare workers and locals believe the emissions from the plants are harmful.

One resident, Alberto, says more people have been falling ill since the generators were installed. His five year-old granddaughter, for example, has suffered from a blocked nose for two years.

“As you know, though, you can't demand anything," Alberto said.

Mercedes Manso, another resident, has suffered from rhinitis for more than five years. 

“The allergist tells me it’s because of where I live. I never suffered from allergies before there was a generator so close to my house," she said. “Those who ordered the generator to be installed in the road outside our houses didn't think about the risks we might face.”

María Elena, a family doctor in the Regla municipality which includes Loma Modelo, said that “fumes and toxins from diesel generators” were making people there vulnerable to respiratory diseases and allergies.

Another contributory factor, the doctor said, was pollution from the Ñico López oil refinery, also in Regla.

While generators in some parts of Havana are some distance from human habitation, the ones in Loma Modelo were built in the middle of residential areas so as to be near two local factories, a grain mill and an edible oil factory, which need to be kept running.

"The soot and noise have been killing me since this innovation was launched,” Alberto said. “In this area the electricity has never gone down because of [the need to maintain] flour production."

From 2005, thousands of fuel-driven generators were installed in Cuba as back-ups for when mains supplies from large power stations cut out. In a system known as “distributed generation”, clusters of small power plants and generators are linked together, supplying both the local area and the national grid.

This was part of the “Energy Revolution”, a package of measures launched that year to conserve power and reduce the frequency of blackouts that had been a feature of life since the Soviet Union – a key trading partner – collapsed in 1991.

A national-level inspector of the state network of generators says they contribute a lot to the economy.

“The micro-electricity plant in Regla municipality has generators distributed in areas of central Havana and on the outskirts. The policy is to maintain continual production,” he said. “This type of continual, uninterrupted generation for homes and businesses produces significant profits for the country’s economy."

Generators running on diesel and fuel oil are, however, anything but environmentally friendly.

A 2008 study by the Cuban Information and Technology Management Centre found that generators released toxic substances like nitrogen oxide, soot, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, sulphur and lead compounds.

"The current location of the diesel engines is incompatible with maintaining healthy air quality in nearby residential areas,” the report said. “It may damage the health of residents, above all those who are more susceptible, such as young children, older people, asthmatics and people with pneumonic or chronic heart conditions."

When this reporter was seeking data on the incidence of respiratory diseases, the epidemiology department for Regla municipality said it could not give out information to “unofficial journalists”. The health department for Loma Modelo had no statistics on deaths caused by respiratory diseases.

Names of interviewees changed for security reasons.

Miriam Herrera Calvo is an independent Cuban journalist living in Havana.

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