HAVANA The death of Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, a fierce critic of biofuels like ethanol, has raised hopes among industry experts that some of Cuba's vast tracts of fallow land may soon be used to ease its dependence on fuel imports.
Castro branded the use of food crops to produce ethanol "a sinister idea" that would result in millions more humans dying of "thirst and starvation."
His words set an ethical red line for Cuban energy production that has not been crossed, despite modernization undertaken by Castro's brother Raul, who took over the presidency provisionally upon Fidel's illness in 2006 and definitively in 2008.
Cuba currently produces 96 percent of its energy with fossil fuels, around 60 percent of which are imported. But its development plans call for 24 percent of energy needs to be produced from wind, solar and biofuels by 2030 in partnership with foreign investors.
"I'm hopeful the Cubans are going to see this as a new day and opportunity. That they will continue to pay homage to the old guy but it is time to move forward," said energy policy and Cuba specialist Jonathan Benjamin-Alvara at the University of Nebraska.
He has advised U.S. energy companies interested in Cuba under the opening created by U.S. President Barack Obama, including Give Global Energy, which operates alternative energy projects internationally.
"Food versus energy is an old story" that has yet be settled, said Frank Corsini, Give Global Energy's chairman and chief executive. He says all countries must eventually dedicate land to some sort of energy production.
Cuba burns a sugar byproduct for fuel but not the more energy-rich cane cellulose.
A government portfolio of investment opportunities says Cuba wants to build 19 bioelectricity plants at sugar mills to generate some 750 megawatts. They would operate "for more than 200 days per year with sugarcane biomass and forestry biomass, basically marabu scrub," it said, referring to the dense, prickly brush that has overrun much of Cuba's arable land.
Corsini said he discussed wind, solar and biofuels with Cuban officials in May and told them the plan would not work without operating 365 days a year, and for that they would have to grow some product, preferably sweet sorghum.
"They are woefully inadequate in biomass," Corsini said.
CUBAN ETHANOL? "TOTAL SENSE"
The Cubans have been quietly experimenting with non-sugar energy crops, according to industry sources, and will soon be conducting sugar studies with faculty from the University of Florida and the University of Texas, said William Messina, an agriculture specialist at the University of Florida.
Cuba faces obstacles besides the sensitive issue of how long to wait after Castro's death before it might pursue ethanol. A U.S. trade embargo remains in place and President-elect Donald Trump is threatening to reverse Obama's rapprochement. Added to this, the ethanol industry has been through difficult times.
In Brazil, the world's largest ethanol producer and one of Cuba's most important trading partners, companies are trying to recover from weak sugar and ethanol prices from 2010 to 2015, using a recent uptick to cut debt and improve installations.
But one product long associated with Cuba is sugar.
"Ethanol production would make total sense for Cuba, since the country is a net importer of energy," said Plinio Nastari, the chief sugar and ethanol analyst at Sao Paulo-based Datagro consultancy. "They have favorable conditions to grow more cane."
Andrew Macdonald, the head of Havana Energy, a British firm backed by Chinese financing that is building the first biomass plant at a sugar mill in Cuba, said it was "logical" the government would eventually become more flexible.
In the meantime, his company would build five plants to burn sugar cane refuse and marabu.
(Reporting by Marc Frank in Havana; Additional reporting by Marcelo Teixeira in Brazil and Chirs Prentice in New York; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Andrew Hay)