Following the Egyptian revolution, solar energy projects are picking up again

On a blazingly hot summer’s day in Cairo, it’s 36 degrees Celsius in the shade. Air-conditioners and fans whirr across the city, burdening the national electricity grid. Last summer, the populous city experienced frequent water and power cuts, causing a furore. Consumption had grown by 2,600 megawatts, an increase of 13.5 per cent from 2009.

Over 1,000 years ago ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun god Ra. Centuries later, modern Egypt is only just beginning to realise the importance of utilising the sun as an energy source. One of the most sunlight-rich countries in the world, this North African country is making slow strides with solar energy.

About 100 km south of Cairo lies Kuraymat, Egypt’s first concentrated solar energy plant, which is expected to produce 120 MW. A hybrid Concentrating Solar Thermal Power plant, 20 MW will be from solar energy and 100 MW from natural gas. Initially expected to start up in December 2010, its activation has been postponed several times. The January 25 uprising further stalled the launch.

Projects for the people

"Foreign partners on the project left and we couldn’t continue", says Khaled Fekry, director of research and development at the New and Renewable Energy Authority (NREA), a government body. German companies Ferrostaal and Flagsol, a subsidiary of Solar Millenium, provided the technology.

Currently, Kuraymat is in the final stage of commissioning, with tests being carried out. Fekry hopes it will be ready at the end of June.

A second 100 MW plant in Kom Ombo was announced last July and should be completed in 2017. Fekry lists other projects: "We aim to develop a 200 MW plant for cement factories and a 1,000 MW plant for the private sector. "

This is all very ambitious but ties in with Egypt’s plan of producing 20 per cent of energy output from renewable sources by 2020. Solar energy will provide a third, or 7,200 MW, of that percentage. Fekry is confident it can be achieved.

While large-scale projects won’t have a direct effect on Egyptians just yet, a joint undertaking by NREA and the Italian ministry of environment has changed the lives of villagers living deep in the Western Desert. The villages of Ain Zahra and Umm al Saghir, not connected to the national energy grid, have had their homes, schools, mosques and hospitals electrified with photovoltaic (PV) solar energy since December 2010.

NREA engineers have remained on site, providing training to the villagers. Six months in, Fekry reports, there have been no complaints.

Usefulness of technology

But Mohab Hallouda, senior energy specialist at the World Bank’s Egypt office, explains that, although PV energy is suitable for outlying areas, "the price must decline to be a viable alternative to electricity from the grid".

Away from the bureaucracy of government-led proposals, a simple concept, SolarCITIES, is empowering residents of local communities. Darb el Ahmar and Manshiet Nasser are two of Cairo’s poorest areas.

Crumbling buildings are built close together, lining narrow streets and jostling with animal, vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Many residents cannot afford heating appliances and "women’s duties" include having to boil water on kerosene stoves. Winter is a hazardous time with frequent burn injuries being reported.

Mustafa Hussein, a Darb el Ahmar resident, is a founding participant of SolarCITIES. He became convinced of the usefulness of the technology after meeting Thomas Culhane, SolarCITIES founder, who sketched him a prototype of a solar panel and heater. The system was built; $25,000 in funding was obtained from the US Agency for International Development; and 35 units installed.

Amm Hassain, 70-years-old, was one of the first residents to agree to the installation of the unit on his building’s rooftop. No longer does his family have to laboriously boil water for a bath, risking potential injury.

The unit provides 200 lt of hot water per day, which can serve up to 10 family members comfortably, and 200 lt of rooftop coldwater storage to help them get through the many days when water is cut in the community.

Mustafa Hussein feels projects like these have more value: "The government plans are removed from us. Here we involve the community directly. I live here, I know this place, I know how to connect with people."

Expansion at expense of finance

But, unless more funding is received, SolarCITIES may not grow. With the average annual income in these areas being $610, the $678 unit is unaffordable for most.

Hussein feels people will realise the importance of turning to solar energy within a few years. "We’ll experience more power cuts. Last summer there was a scarcity of gas tanks and people died fighting for them."

Fekry wants Egypt to follow the Tunisian model: "The government subsidised solar water heaters, and provided them on credit with low interest rates," he explains.

But, with an unequal playing field, a paradigm shift toward renewable energy seems unlikely. Even with gas subsidies in Egypt being phased out, fossil energy remains cheap, while a lack of competition won’t reduce the cost of solar energy.

Kuraymat cost $360mn and the Kom Ombo plant’s cost is estimated at $270mn. The Egyptian government plans to spend $100-120bn to triple capacity by 2027.

Fekry points to taxes on imported solar components as the culprit contributing to the high cost of solar energy. He also believes that, "we can only expand if we have finance. Foreign investors should direct funds to Egypt now, and not wait until the country is stable.