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    Bioelectric power plant Ciro Redondo: Dreams of divorced marriage

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    Bioléctrica del central Ciro Redondo: Sueños de matrimonio divorciado

    Seen from below, where it begins to be born, one imagines that the first bioelectric plant (BE) built in Cuba has claims of eternity, and even seems to possess a certain mysticism. Stored mounds of marabou biomass that appear and hide, some very high places where men tied to security tapes once worked like ants; thick, insulated steam pipes, a generator that vibrated during the first tests; two boilers enclosed in a metal building 42 meters high by 14 wide… a persistent hum.

    Gr, grr, grrr, grrrrrrrrr! The sound of the turbo generator pierces your ears as you approach. Hopefully it's chronic and only stops being heard because of some scheduled maintenance at the BE or the Ciro Redondo plant, a couple forced to get along, with no other alternative, although until now there have been plenty of disquisitions.

    Between prophecies, omens and conjectures, four years ago the project began to be born; sometimes by forced March; others, with spasm slowness.

    It is the faithful reflection in the mind of those who have followed the cross between the plant and the central, who have seen them climb over internal and external obstacles (blockade of the United States included); who saw with eyes of progress when in April 2017 the ambassadors of the United Kingdom and the People's Republic of China attended the symbolic placement of the rock that marked the era of the beginning in Cuba of the use of renewable energy, based on sugarcane biomass and the marabou, something unprecedented in the world, according to specialists.Between thorns and…

    From the top of the dome of the caldera, among the highest places in the municipality, the greenery of the cane fields and other crops is shown with some splendor; the visitor observes even the access roads and the streets of the town, but not the marabou areas that one day suffocated the area from all four sides.

    The reserves of the stickleback are further from the generating enclave; even the harvesting teams came to cut it more than 20 kilometers away, in the second of the five rings of 10 kilometers each.When the route exceeds 50 kilometers, that is, beyond the fifth ring, the transfer of biomass will not be convenient, nor will tractors be able to do it. By then, it will be necessary to look for alternatives, other means of transport and another way of collecting it; new investments will have to be made.

    There have been few thorns. To the extent that the start-up of the plant was delayed, it was necessary to grind marabou, more and more, so much so that they have freed from the malevolent a figure greater than 6,000 hectares, from which 200,000 tons of biomass came out; lands that agriculture and Azcuba itself have not given use value in its entirety.

    “That weakness is convenient for us, because the spiny one takes advantage of it to grow again,” says Orlando Suárez Pino, manager of transport operations and exploitation of the mixed company Biopower SA, whose shareholders are the British Havana Energy and Zerus, the latter subordinated to the Azcuba Sugar Group.

    In the field, a rodent, the only survivor of the passage of time and the rigor of the work, crushes it, breaks it up so that it can be gobbled up, burned and converted into electricity.

    Concern is drawn on Orlando's face about the low utilization coefficient. Of the park of 11, only four remain active, although there were days of only having one in action.

    Contrary to the vox populi and the technical state that they now exhibit, the harvesters are of excellent quality and the Agricultural Machinery Research Institute certified the entry into the country. What happened was that the investment money was not enough to buy parts, new harvesters, or to activate the machine shop, which never existed, which is why operators and mechanics have to repair breakdowns in such an environment. Hostile as the marabou field, at the mercy of the sun, the serene, the water and even sharp rails, if they fell.

    “When they go into action they can trip over any object because a fire hydrant appears the same as a tractor tire, a piece of cane cutters, an engine block… We have even found cement walls submerged in the marabou and, if it is at night, when visibility is difficult, you know. The machines suffer so much that even their color changed due to the constant “scratching” of the marabou”, says engineer Armando Urquiola Martín, logistics manager of the company Biopower S.A.

    He affirms that for three years no parts, tires, or aggregates have entered —only some belts arrived a long time ago— that ensure optimal technical availability. “Before the end of the first quarter of 2022, some logistics are expected to reactivate them. Some additions have arrived, but few. Meanwhile, we look for our own alternatives that do not always solve the problems, because they are very sophisticated”, he argues.

    Among the drawbacks is the fact that they are designed to work in fields conditioned for harvesting trees, not for those born in any terrain, with irregularities, holes, elevations, foreign objects and whatever appears on the road.

    The absence of the harvesters has paralyzed the BE and the central on several occasions; the last one, on February 19; 13 days after the 2021-2022 harvest began, the mill was forced to exit the system due to a lack of marabou biomass, at a time when it was grinding at 60% of its capacity and showing stability in operation.

    Due to the new setback, it will be impossible for it to meet the 62,041 tons of sugar, if it manages to get its scaffolding up and running until next April, it will put the province's goal at risk and will once again unleash national controversy among those who claimed that "now yes".

    “It will enter the ring when there is enough raw material. For now, it was activated at the beginning of February last January 1st, which was not planned to incorporate it into the contest”, explains Eduardo Larrosa Vázquez, director of coordination and technical supervision of the Azcuba Azucarero Group in Ciego de Ávila.

    In the face of so many setbacks, the search for alternatives cannot be delayed further to, in the first instance, register the harvesters, who are the most responsible, now, for the fact that Ciro Redondo has stopped the milling. Similarly, it is necessary to speed up the creation of marabou collection centers in other parts of the province and look for mechanisms so that third parties can sell the forest biomass in the BE itself, for which new investments will be required, among them, a chipper that converts cut trees into affordable raw material for boilers, as they do in other parts of the world.

    And it is that a harvest, in the case of Ciro Redondo, also means 106 days of life for a municipality that depends almost entirely on its plant, which, fortunately, was not a victim of the former resizing of the Cuban sugar industry; a harvest that cannot be turned upside down because there is no forest biomass or for whatever reasons, especially if they were not foreseen.

    Although the initial idea was to plant forests, cane and other crops in the liberated areas, it would be preferable to let the marabou proliferate again to continue with the cycle of cutting it down and turning it into electricity, a country necessity.

    The words of the automatic control engineer Carmen Taboada Hernández, vice president of Biopower SA, reinforce this thesis: “Since we started generation, at the beginning of 2020, slips included, we have saved several million dollars by generating electricity with biomass, without the use of another fuel”.

    According to data provided by the Load Dispatch of the Empresa Eléctrica de Ciego de Ávila, from January 17, 2020 to January 19 of this year, the more than 138,000 megawatts/hours delivered by the BE to the National Electroenergetic System are equivalent to to the consumption of approximately 827,800 homes or to that of the state and residential sectors of the province of Ciego de Ávila for two months, without the use of some 30,500 tons of fuel in the country's thermoelectric plants.

    It would not be a phantasmagorical idea, then, to achieve harmony in the chain, including the promotion of the marabou, if in the Avilanian geography there are some 102,000 idle hectares and, according to the last balance of use and possession of the land, more than 22,300 they remain free of this plant and can be used in various crops, livestock and cane planting, without having to "touch" the lands where the thorny one exists.

    Bagasse, stumbles and energy forests?

    This time, the reporter concurred with part of the questions from the report “The time for bioelectricity and the energy we need”, published in the Granma newspaper in April 2019, for almost the same protagonists, with the difference that he was waiting for answers more flattering about the increase in sugarcane production and yields, very deteriorated in recent years, bad that it is not exclusive to the Ciro Redondo sugar mill, now converted into an agro-industrial company.

    Will agricultural yields be in a position to guarantee high and stable grindings in the mill? Will there be enough raw material (marabou, bagasse) for power generation once the harvest is over? Will there be a transportation system that will keep the flow of biomass stable? Will the remaining two sugar mills in the territory and one in Camagüey help if their brother, Ciro Redondo, is not capable of supplying them with the bagasse required by the generating plant? Will the province have the energy forests?

    To this string of questions, I could add others: What will happen when the marabou runs out within the 50-kilometer radius established for transportation with current equipment? Will sugarcane agriculture be in a position to guarantee the raw material so that Ciro Redondo delivers the agreed amount of bagasse and with the required quality during the 180 days negotiated in the initial contract?

    To Raudel de la Torre Rodríguez, cane director of the Ciro Redondo sugar agro-industrial company; Yudiasqui Espinosa Era, head of the sugarcane group, was joined by the expert Víctor Diéguez Ogando, irrigation director of the entity, who did not dodge questions, nor did they hide reality, common sense.

    Nuances more, nuances less, they agree that "even if we want and try, in the short term there will be no improvement in the company's sugarcane production." They were as sincere as they were frank, without half measures or complacent answers.

    More than two years after the first encounter, the circumstances must have been different, although it is known that it is impossible to grow cane by decree and raise the colony in such a short time, with the lack of fertilizers, herbicides and inputs, to which are added the meteorological events and the daily bungling in planting, replanting, and poor cultural attention to plantations, the other phenomenon that has not just disappeared.

    "When you add up elements, says Víctor, the area under irrigation does not even reach 50% of what we should have to put a stop to the deterioration of sugarcane production, which is coupled with many other causes: the almost three years of drought, the subtropical storm Alberto, cyclone Irma, the paralysis of the power plant for two years, the lack of nutrients, the lag in the cutting season, and the loss of the vines.”

    If in an ideal scenario the resources were available, in about two or three years the plantations could show another face, but securing them in their entirety would be more difficult than achieving the perfect marriage between the bioelectric plant and the plant.

    For there to be bagasse, there must first be cane. The great answer is that Ciro Redondo, without the help of teammates Enrique Varona, Primero de Enero and Brasil from Camagüey, will not be able to solve the capacity of its neighbor. The cane is not “three pieces”, as the peasants say, and it is not enough to satisfy her.

    The new neighbor is a troglodyte that gobbles up, according to the original design, 2,100 tons of bagasse in 24 hours during harvest time and 1,200 to 1,500 tons of marabou during the mill's inactivity period, although now they mix it at a rate of 40% of the first with 60% of the second, because the fiber-core ratio sent by the central unit is not adequate.

    “It arrives very heterogeneous, with different sizes and not as requested by the project. The cane varieties could also influence this, the state of the raw material when it arrives at the mill, if it is old, if it is new. Any change generates a different bagasse”, specifies Taboada Hernández.

    However, the pact is that the Ciro Redondo delivers bagasse and condensed water, and she, which will generate 60 megawatts —including the five for input and the eight for the plant—, will grant it electricity and thermal energy (steam) so that it can continue the process, failed by one and the other on more than one occasion.

    The divorce was signed from the beginning, because while the financing to build the bioelectric plant and modernize the plant amounted to more than 300 million dollars as a whole, the agricultural part was left almost orphaned of money for investments. There was no integrating look at the project. Moreover, if there was, they did not materialize it.

    They avoided the requirement that the works induced by any investment should be brought forward, even a few years, more so if it is known that it is not a matter of blowing and “making cane”, in an extremely deteriorated agricultural scenario.

    “Of the 14,000 hectares of the initial plan to supply the bioelectric plant, we are close to 5,000, but water alone and good intentions do not work; In addition, the technological package is needed and the country has not been able to guarantee it. Even so, we are the company in Cuba that has the most areas under irrigation,” acknowledges Raudel.

    What was left undone has its repercussion. The plant and the bioelectric plant need 1,184,000 tons of cane for the 180 days of activity of the plant and it will actually grind 671,000 tons, with the contribution of the three sugar mills mentioned above.

    The calculations, on paper, reveal that the company would take five years to reach 800,000 tons, if the agricultural part is subjected to an intense investment process, with all the necessary inputs; if it did not occur, the period could be extended. It is impossible to forget that the decrease in sugarcane continues for several years and, apparently, will not stop in the short term.

    Víctor exemplifies with other data: “There are just over 40 drip irrigation systems missing, more than 10 central pivot machines and about 50 hose reels. It is also fair to say that not all producers carry out the irrigation activity, as they should. We have them good and bad. We direct the investments to the best, although the others have also benefited and we redouble the check on them so that everyone is at the same level”.

    The bioelectric-sugar plant disagreements have affected third parties. The UBPC Ilusión —one of the best in the municipality in terms of sugarcane production— lost 35,000 tons of cane in the last two harvests, with an economic impact of almost 2,000,000 pesos, because they removed the water before the harvest , as is established, but they were not cut. "The canes dried up and the vines died," exemplifies Alfredo Oropeza Díaz, president of that organization, which has not been the only victim of deterioration.

    A tour confirmed that weak, weedy plantations predominate in the countryside, suffocated by vines and weeds that slow down development. He also saw them with other faces in the Ignacio Agramonte CPA, in a trickle of the Triunfo de la Revolución CPA and in the Ilusión productive base, where the record in sugarcane yield for Cuba and Latin America is even in force, with 276 tons of cane per hectare in a drip system, several years ago. A few swallows do not make a summer.

    So that the demands related to the increase in sugarcane production do not remain mere pretensions, it becomes necessary to create an infrastructure that is adequate for the current times: a maintenance and irrigation brigade, with cranes, qualified personnel, engineers, as part of of a logistics that does not exist today, to which are added fertilizers and new ways of doing for the promotion of vigorous fields so that the raw material reaches the jogger.

    Yudiaski affirms that they have a well-conceived agrotechnical program, working in block composition, without picks, and they try to do everything they ask for, from land preparation to cutting. "We have to rise above the difficulties and make the cane we need."

    If that entire framework is resolved, there will be cane. Only in this way will Ciro Redondo be able to match the arm wrestling with its neighbor, moreover, if nature helps: without the scourge of tropical cyclones, or droughts, or the appearance of the boy or the girl or any other phenomenon that could be in the environment.

    “The bioelectric plant, says Víctor, came to make life more complex for us farmers, but if it weren't there, today we wouldn't have so much concern about reviving the colony and that suits us. Someday there will be cane. We feel pressure, a lot of pressure, more so at the present time when there is nothing to throw at the seedling. Industry is a good monster and agriculture is not”.

    Another of the obligatory shortcuts is the promotion of energy forests, not foreseen at the beginning of the investment and as necessary as the biomass of bagasse and marabou.

    In just two paragraphs, Yodelvis Rivera Pelegrín, general director of the Ciego de Ávila agroforestry company, summarizes the magnitude of a splintered problem with no solution until now.

    “Can you imagine that of the little more than 3,000 hectares planned in the program linked to bioelectricity until the end of 2022, we have only 307 planted so far, and with our own effort? Can you imagine that for this 2022 we have, nothing planned for planting and if we did, we could not undertake it because we do not have the resources?

    “Can you imagine that the necessary insurance does not exist in the company to face the preparation of the land, the maintenance, the production of postures in five technified nurseries that we still do not have? Can you imagine that energy forests take six to eight years to provide biomass? Can you imagine? Can you imagine?

    More than speed, the race is about resistance and with obstacles. Simple mathematical operations reveal that in the time when there is no harvest, the bioelectric will need about 250,000 tons of biomass and two million tons! if we had to wait for the energy forests to come into production, while that does not happen, we will have to continue grinding marabou, wherever it is and at the expense of depleting reserves.

    Teachings against shipwrecks

    There may be other secrets to be revealed, including defaults between the parties involved in the megaproject, but it was not necessary to delve so deeply into the matter, which could be the subject of another journalistic work.

    The investment process of both works, more than megawatts of current, has generated many inconsistencies, doubts and dissatisfactions, increased by the tense situation that the country has gone through in the production of electricity, while the construction of the plant and the repair of the plant.

    It also leaves lessons to avoid shipwrecks in future similar businesses, that should not give margins to misunderstandings for what it means for the country and to deserve the trust of foreign investment.

    The idea is not unreasonable, for example, that the new bioelectric plants are born and coexist under a management contract, but the financing must be centralized and used in all areas: in the bioelectric plant itself, agriculture, industry, the sugar mill, the development of forests, warehouse infrastructure, the workshop for agricultural machinery, the planting of energy cane; that it be an integral project, with unity between all the parts, unlike this one, which was conceived in pieces, including moments of “you over there and me over here”.

    This undermined the harmony and good development of both investments.

    Several of the requirements established in the Engineering, Procurement and Construction contract by the contractor could not be met on time due to covid-19; among the most peremptory, the training of personnel for when “Day Zero” arrives, the date on which the BE will be operated entirely by Cuban personnel.

    Carmen, an engineer who has been linked to the project since before 2017, when the first stone was laid, dreams every time; dreams that something happens in the boilers, in the rotor, in the harvesting machines, in the central conveyors, in the lack of biomass; He dreams that the bioelectric plant and the central stopped working. I hope that all uncertainty and stumbling is just that: a dream and not a nightmare.