Castro Opts to Go Diesel in an 'Energy Revolution'

HAVANA, Cuba -- Cuba is racing to install thousands of container-sized diesel generators across the island to avoid another situation like the one last summer when widespread blackouts fanned popular unrest.

President Fidel Castro has taken personal responsibility for what he calls an "energy revolution" prompted by widespread complaints about the failings of Cuba's obsolete power plants.

His supporters say the first-of-its-kind energy plan is a stroke of genius. His critics see it as a desperate blunder.

The generators are being grouped in clusters and connected to the electrical grid so they can feed the national system or operate independently in all 14 provinces.

"The unit consists of 32 generators in eight groups ... capable of generating 60.4 megawatts," state-run news agency AIN said of one cluster in eastern Holguin province.

The one- to two-megawatt generators, each capable of powering a whole neighborhood, are also being installed at key facilities around the Caribbean island, such as hospitals and factories.

Around $800 million has been spent so far to import generators, mainly from Spain, Germany and South Korea.

Castro has promised to put an end to the frequent outages that Cubans have had to live with since the collapse of Soviet communism plunged their country into economic crisis.

He has also vowed to provide every Cuban home with new electrical appliances from China that use less power, from stoves and fans to refrigerators, in many cases replacing inefficient U.S.-made products dating from the 1950s.

Castro says his "energy revolution" will pay for itself by saving Cuba at least $1 billion per year in generating costs.

By May, according to Castro, hundreds of generators will have added the equivalent of three 350-megawatt power plants that would cost $1.7 billion and take six years to build.

Since the generators began to arrive, blackouts have all but disappeared. But the real test will come with the hot summer months, when demand peaks.

"There is no doubt it is an ingenious, though expensive, way for them to quickly solve their immediate problems," a Western diplomat said.

"The question we all have is what will happen in a few years. Generators have never been used as the basis of a power system before, anywhere," he said.

Cuban officials brush off such concerns and insist the strategy has been well thought out.

But foreign electrical engineers say it is a recipe for a logistics nightmare as thousands of generators will have to be constantly supplied with diesel and their engines serviced.

Still, Castro insists the plan will help Cuba cope with the impact of hurricanes by making each part of the country independent of the national grid.

It will also strengthen Cuba's defenses, he said, recalling the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "Our entire power grid could have been knocked out with just seven bombs."