Workers walk past solar panels and wind turbines (rear) at a newly-built power plant in Hami, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer
CAIRO - 16 February 2019: With a plan to expand urban zones from the current 6% to 12% of the country’s total area, Egypt is building 15 new fourth-generation cities where facilities will be managed in a sustainable way. There are also plans to increase the current 114 industrial zones to boost investments in the manufacturing sector.
And with these ambitious industrialization and urbanization plans, the New and Renewable Energy Authority (NREA) has adopted a strategy since 2016 to increase the sector’s contribution to Egypt’s energy from the current 10% to 20% by 2022, boosting the country’s dependence on renewable energy. The breakdown would be 12% for wind energy, 2% for solar energy, and 6% for hydropower.
According to the authority, the most suitable areas for generating wind energy are the western Gulf of Suez, the eastern and western deserts of the Nile river, and some locations in Sinai.
In an effort to reach a total capacity of of 7 gigawatts from wind farms in the Gulf of Suez by 2022, several projects are already under way. Orascom – Engie – Toyota Tsusho consortium have commenced working on a 250-megawatt wind farm in the Gulf of Suez earlier this year at a $400 million cost. They have also inked a $650 million deal to build a 500-megawatt wind farm in the Gulf of Suez’s Ras Gharib. The farm would also save up to 420,000 tons of fuel annually, decreasing emissions of carbon dioxide by 1.1 tons. Another wind farm was inaugurated on July 24 in Gabal El Zeit, with a capacity of 580 megawatts and encompassing 300 turbines.
In a country that enjoys plenty of sunshine all year round, the state is heavily promoting investments in solar energy. Egypt has begun building the largest solar energy station in the world, encompassing 40 plants, in Benban, Aswan, with a capacity of 1,650 megawatts and a $4 billion cost. The first plant, “Infinity,” already started operating this year, with a capacity of 50 megawatts. A solar energy station will be built in Kom Ombo city in Aswan with a capacity of 26 megawatts and at a cost of $46.7 million. One more will be constructed in Hurghada with a capacity of 20 megawatts. Three others with a capacity of 50 megawatts each will be built as well, one in Zaafarana, Red Sea Governorate. Solar energy has also been used in some public institutions buildings across the country, as well as a number of residential buildings, largely through foreign aid financing.
Dissecting renewable energy systems
Renewable energy systems are either on-grid or off grid. The former means that the system is connected to the regular electricity network, the extra energy produced goes to the network and the system switches to regular electricity. In case of investors building and operating renewable energy plants, they get paid by the state. Domestic users installing PV (photovoltaics) panels, on the other hand, pay the difference between regular energy they consume and renewable energy they produce. While on-the-grid systems are easier and cheaper to install, they are not able to save energy and must be connected to the network to operate. Off-the-grid systems, however, are more expensive and complicated to install and are isolated from the regular networks, but they have batteries to store energy. Wael El-Nashar, president and CEO of Onera Systems, explains that an off-the-grid system is useful to provide electricity for cellular networks, billboards, street lighting, and remote residential areas. El Nashar elaborates that these systems contain batteries to save energy for the night, in the case of solar energy, or when there is no or weak wind.
Hatem El Roumy, CEO of Triple M for Renewable Energy, adds that the batteries’ lifespan is three to eight years. He suggests that, if the location allows, it is better to build a hybrid system where solar energy would be available in the morning, while wind energy would work overnight. That would improve the batteries’ life by feeding it with energy, up to 80%, so that it would not drop below 20% and risk damage.
Professor of physics at the American University in Cairo and Provost Ehab Abdel Rahman, however, says that batteries are quite costly which constitutes a disadvantage for the offgrid system.
Because on-the-grid systems cannot store energy and feed directly into the network, but are more affordable and simpler to install for the average consumer, they are more suitable for households, farms and office buildings as PV panels can just be installed on rooftops, El Nashar clarifies. He adds that they are beneficial in reducing the amount of electricity consumed from regular sources as well as lowering the consumer’s purchasing tranche.
Despite the initially high cost of installation, El-Nashar advises the gradual switch to renewable energy as it is more cost-efficient on the longer-term, and adds that a gradual switch may be more financially feasible for those who can’t afford the initial investment. In factories, for instance, solar energy would decrease operating costs dramatically, that the panels would cover their cost over five to six years.
Whereas solar panels have a lifespan of 25 years, same as wind turbines, they require less maintenance than turbines, and only need to be cleaned regularly. Turbines, on the other hand, cost 2% of their initial price in maintenance.
Alternative renewable energy
Renewable energy, however, does not come without its shortcomings. From lack of stability to wasted energy, even alternative energy sources need alternative technology.
El Roumy advises opting for on-the-grid turbines, as wind speed are not generally stable. Although Gabal El Zeit area is ideal for wind energy, the area lacks wind for 28 days annually. Generally speaking, the best locations in Egypt for generating wind energy are the Red Sea coast, and Western Minya.
Abdel Rahman explains that solar energy is not continuous, so the production is not stable. “Thus, the grid has to be smart enough not to be impacted negatively by the intermittency of the solar energy,” he says, adding that solar cells are made of rare earth elements which are finite.
Abdel Rahman explains that the alternative technology is concentrated solar power using heat engines. The maintenance of those includes looking after the engines and cleaning the mirrors. This technology is more durable because it uses glass and iron. By contrast, PV panels are subject to decreasing capacity by time and by excessive heat.
Solar energy plants efficiency are estimated at less than 20%, but Abdel Rahman explains that waste energy from the cells can be used to heat water by installing water pipes underneath. The heat comes from infrared radiation (IR) absorbed by solar cells, which just need visible range of solar radiation, but end up absorbing also IR and UV (ultraviolet radiation).
Wind energy has some advantages over solar energy as the turbines require just 20% of the space needed to install PV panels, and it produces more than double the energy produced by solar, El Roumy explains. In case of solar, one megawatt would cost $750,000 producing 5.5 megawatts per hour, and 6 kilowatts per hour would provide electricity for a house for 25 years. In case of wind, one megawatt would cost $1 million, producing 11.5 megawatts per hour.
Off-grid solar energy can also be used without batteries when using solar-powered pump in what is known as solar irrigation from dawn till sunset, El Roumy says.
All three experts praise the feed-in tariff law that was first promulgated in 2014, and amended in 2017 for its role in boosting the usage of renewable energy in the country. Abdel Rahman also suggests that lifting subsidies would help changing the people’s mindset to switch to renewable energy which is cheaper.
The AUC provost revealed that the university is working on developing thermoacoustic heat engines. When exposed to heat, the engines would produce acoustic waves causing magnet to move quickly through a coil of copper wire so that electrons move and electricity is produced. That is characterized by durability (30 years) and efficiency. However, a life cycle cost analysis is still underway.
Abdel Rahman concludes that Egypt has many calibers who can operate renewable energy plants, as well as many potential workers who can be trained to take on jobs in the field. Currently, however, the great majority of companies working in the solar energy sector assemble solar cells rather than produce them, in addition to providing maintenance services.