Local Innovation Facilitates Solidarity-Based Biogas Networks in Cuba

Alexander López Savrán, a 32-year-old engineer who innovated the standard fixed-dome biodigester to make it possible to create distribution networks from materials readily available in Cuba, stands next to one of these systems in the rural town of La Macuca, in Cabaiguán, Cuba. (Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS)

HAVANA, Cuba, Tuesday
January 8, 2019 (IPS)
– Black plastic pipes, readily available on the mainly empty
shelves of Cuba’s shops, distribute biogas to homes in the rural town of La Macuca,
buried under the ground or running through the grass and stones in people’s

The strong blue flame in the
kitchens of the eight homes supplied by producer Yuniel Pons is thanks to
engineer Alexander López Savran, who innovated the standard fixed-dome
biodigester to create distribution networks with the few basic materials
available in this Caribbean island nation.

new biodigester has been designed to obtain pressure, which means that biogas
can be distributed more than five kilometres away without the need for a
compressor or blower. That is where the innovation lies,” the engineer, who
lives in the city of Cabaiguán, capital of the municipality of the same name,
where La Macuca is located, in the central province of Santi Spíritus, told IPS.

López, 32, made headlines in
2017 when he received the Green Latin America Award in Ecuador, and the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology included him among the 35 young Latin
Americans whose innovations improved the lives of their communities.

a long-standing movement of biogas promoters and current regulations for
private pork production favourable to its expansion, Cuba faces the challenge
of creating efficient distribution networks to further exploit this ecological
resource and raise the quality of life of rural localities, amidst an anemic

started by taking a close look at the problem,” López recalled. “We had
pork-raising centres that needed biodigesters, but the volume they were going
to produce would be much greater than the consumption of those state
facilities. On the other hand, we didn’t have the equipment to be able to
distribute it.”

fuel arises from the decomposition of organic matter, especially cattle manure
and human faeces. But on many farms with biodigesters there is a surplus of
methane gas which, if not used, puts pressure on the equipment and is often
released into the atmosphere, contributing to pollution.

addition, biogas is most efficient for cooking because up to 70 per cent of the
energy is lost when it is used to generate electricity or fuel a vehicle.

factors were considered: we had too much energy and there are difficulties in
cooking food in the communities due to deficits in access to energy or
electricity costs,” López said, referring to the dependence of most Cuban
households on electric appliances.

After two years of study and design, López came up with the first prototype, which over time “has changed structurally to gain in efficiency, durability and performance,” he said, when interviewed by IPS in Pons’ home, where Pons lives with his wife Sandra Díaz and their son.

Sandra Díaz regulates the flame in her kitchen, which uses biogas from the innovative biodigester installed on her family’s land, in La Macuca, Cabaiguán, in the province of Santi Spíritus, in central Cuba. (Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS)

Most of the biodigesters
designed by López have been built as part of the Biomás Cuba project, which is
coordinated by the state-run Indio Hatuey Experimental Pasture and Forage
Station, located in the province of Matanzas, with support from the Swiss
Agency for Development and Cooperation.

initiative, which seeks to bring about energy sustainability in the Cuban
countryside, provides part of the inputs, while the producer provides another
part, to build the biodigester, which with fixed-dome technology is expensive
because it requires a large volume of building materials but is compensated
with distribution and 40 years of durability.

estimated that his 10-cubic-meter biodigester costs the equivalent of $1,000 in
Cuba, but with an efficiency equal to that of a standard 15-cubic-metre
biodigester. Less profitable are the polyethylene biodigesters, which cost
about 800 dollars, serve just one home and have a useful life of up to 10

far, 10 biodigesters have been built with this local innovation in four
localities of Cabaiguán: El Colorado (two), Ojo de Agua (one), Juan González
(six) and La Macuca (one), which supply 102 homes and improved the lives of 600
people, saving 65 per cent of electricity consumption per household.

the technology was also replicated in Matanzas, although the engineer lamented
the lukewarm reception by decision-makers with respect to the biodigester,
which could contribute to the national plan for renewable energies to provide
24 per cent of electric power by 2030, compared to just four per cent today.

well-equipped corrals, Pons keeps between 100 and 150 pigs behind his house as
part of an agreement between state companies and private producers that in 2017
produced a record 194,976 tons, which did not, however, meet the demand of the
country’s 11.2 million inhabitants. And that total was apparently not surpassed
in 2018.

years ago I had a big mess with animal waste, until I sought advice and began
to make biogas,” recalled the producer, who is supported by Biomás. “We are
working on expanding the corrals so that another biodigester can benefit 15
more families, who have already been selected.”

Farmer Yuniel Pons and his wife Sandra Díaz stand next to the biodigester installed by their house, which with its innovative system supplies energy to the kitchens of eight homes in La Macuca, a rural settlement in the municipality of Cabaiguán, in central Cuba. (Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS)

After lighting the gas stove in his kitchen, Diaz, a homemaker, explained that “cooking food like this is faster, it’s wonderful… I used to cook with an electric hotplate and pressure cooker, but they were almost always broken,” she said.

network reaches the modest home of Denia Santos and her family, who live next
door to Pons. “Now I cook with biogas and I also use it to boil (disinfect)
towels and bedding, something I did with firewood that I would chop up myself,”
said Santos, who takes care of her mentally disabled son.

benefits described by families who have biogas are that it is a better way to
cook food for their animals and boil water for human consumption, and that it
generates a stronger sense of community as everyone is responsible for
maintaining the biodigester.

José Antonio Guardado, national
coordinator of the Movement of Biogas Users, which emerged in 1983 and today
has more than 3,000 members spread throughout almost all of Cuba’s provinces,
said he was happy with the trend in Cuban agriculture to create solidarity
biogas networks.

told IPS that there is “greater awareness, political support and participative
activities in the context of local development,” although obstacles to
distribution persist because “materials in the market are not optimal,
sufficient or affordable” and “there is a lack of institutional infrastructure
to provide this service in an integrated manner.”

in El Cano, outside of Havana, the solidarity plans of farmer Hortensia Martínez
have come to a halt despite the fact that she used her own resources to build a
biodigester with a traditional fixed 22-cubic-meter dome on her La China farm,
to supply the farm itself and share with five neighbouring homes.

“Now I plan to give it a boost, but we haven’t been able to implement it because we don’t have the connections to the community’s houses and it has valves, special faucets and a type of hose that makes it possible to bury the network underground,” the farmer, who is well-known for her community projects, especially targeting children, told IPS.

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