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Revolutionary Power: A look at Cuba’s Energy Future

Dan Vermeer is a prestigious lecturer at Duke University in North Carolina; his career highlights include senior responsibilities at Coca Cola related to water management and sustainability/corporate responsibility before becoming the director of Duke’s University’s Center for Energy, Development and the Global Environment (EDGE) of the Fuqua School of Business. Professor Vermeer assists his MBA Energy Club students to identify potential challenges that stimulate their curiosity and technical ability: when his former colleague, Silvia Garrigo of CSI, suggested “Cuba” as potential area of study, Professor Vermeer immediately set up a series of calls and interactions which included his students and the CSI team.

Given Duke’s reputation and their quality of work, CSI enthusiastically embraced the collaboration. The University’s Energy Club itself is comprised of graduate students, many of whom already hold positions at top tier engineering companies in the United States.

The collaboration was enhanced by the current political rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba, augmented by President Barack Obama’s visit to the island in March of 2016. From these discussions came the idea of preparing a case study on the future of energy in Cuba for Fuqua's annual Case Study on Energy in Emerging Markets (EEMCC). This competition would be one of the central events of Duke University Energy Week.

The next months entail arduous and interesting work, mainly for our strategy director, Dr. Carlos Fernandez-Aballí, specialist in the subject of renewable energy. Carlos assisted in constructing a viable proposal to present the case study which included an overview of existing renewable energy opportunities that might be attractive to U.S. companies.

By September 2016, the project, entitled Revolutionary Power: A look at Cuba's Energy Future, was confirmed and it included participation from students from a number of other prestigious U.S. and foreign universities. The competition offered $15,000 in prizes and a trip to Havana, between May 31 and June 2 to participate in the International Renewable Energy Conference, CIER 2017.

Cuba’s inclusion in the case competition generated a tremendous amount of global interest (particularly given the challenges of Cuba’s history of overcoming the power supply crisis during the “special period”): the participation of 30 teams, more than twice for previous competition, from the USA and other such distant places such as as Oxford, UK and Hong Kong. Top tier corporate energy sponsors included SIEMENS, NationalGrid, AccentureStrategy and SouthernCompany, we also had a diverse panel of Judges including emblematic figures such as Jim Rogers, who was CEO of Duke Energy and author of the book Lighting the World: Transforming our Energy Future by Bringing Electricity to Everyone.

The 12 teams were selected from Carnegie Mellon University, Colorado School of Mines, Columbia University, Duke University, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, John Hopkins University, Cornell University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, University of Pittsburgh, Washington University in St. Louis, and Yale University.

For Carlos Fernández-Aballí, the competition, held on November 1st on the campus of Duke University, was very emotional. It was easy to dream when you see this group of bright, beautiful young people, from so many corners of the world, with professionalism, commitment, creativity and the passion that characterizes the commitment of the new generations with the future, to be focused on the development of Cuba. The competition was tough, however, due to the level of the jury and of the proposals. There were initiatives of submarine turbines, taking advantage of the Gulf current in the strait between Cuba and Florida; that proposed submarine cables to compensate for Cuba's electricity grid, as well as supplying energy back to Florida at dusk and receiving it at dawn making use of geographic advantages between the north-south oriented peninsula and east-west orientation of the Island. There were those who spoke about floating natural gas combined cycle units, the use of the sugar industry and the distributed generation system, sun, wind and waste groups, they all presented viable strategies with their economic feasibility studies and proposals for measures and investment instruments. Strategies that could be used by Cuba and businessmen from all over the world, to bring the necessary resources to the country. In general, the competition bet that Cuba could aim to increase its target of renewables by more than 40% under current conditions and, at the same time, reduce the cost of producing its energy up to 0.14 USD / kWh, all this would reduce the dependencies of external energy resources.

The spirit of the competition was magnetic, these young people were marveled at the possibility of contributing their ingenuity, with the best ideas of the US approaching the best of Cuba; of being protagonists in a moment of history. In the end, the John Hopkins University team was the winner, followed by Washington University from St. Louis, and finally Carnegie Mellon University.

The result of the work of the students, Dan Verneer, EDGE, Carlos Fernandez-Aballí and Cuba Strategies Inc. will have one of the most noble and expected spaces, the CIER conference, organized by the Center for the Study of Renewable Technologies (CETER) in Cuba, that belongs to the Technical University of Havana, where students and participants will be able to face a much wider reality and a group of energy professionals in Cuba with the encouragement to share their knowledge and discuss their intelligent proposals. These different proposals were compiled in a single article to be presented at CIER by the students, including a proposal to energize the country to 100% with renewable sources. The follow-up of these results will be done from the website of Energizing Cuba, where we will also include both, the other students work and the judges. Many asked about the possibility of attending the CIER, they all are invited. As a result, in the longer term, the competition motivated the start of talks to explore future opportunities for collaboration between EDGE and CETER.

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