Egypt researchers bet on solar energy with ‘Solar House Complex’ project

The National Research Centre’s solar energy department is carrying out a pilot project based on powering many household appliances — heaters, refrigerators, air conditioners, ice makers and dryers — with solar energy.

The Solar House Complex project is about to be launched and will tackle households around Egypt in remote areas deprived of energy and water to improve the residents’ quality of life.

“The locations for the solar house complexes were primarily selected in areas in the Cairo vicinity, such as Imbaba and Qalyubiya, as well as more remote regions like Sinai that lack electricity and clean water,” says Nagwa Khatab, head of the solar energy department.

Egypt lies in a high solar insulation band and experiences good weather conditions most of the year, which, along with its coasts and underground brackish water supply, make it a strategic location for the project.

In Upper Egypt, solar insulation — which measures the solar radiation a given surface area receives at a given time — shows that radiation reaches up to 8 kilowatts per hour per square meter per day, with about 300 clear days each year. In comparison, California has an average of 4.5 kilowatts and only 160 clear days.

Headed by Khattab, the solar house project started in late 2005, and its first stage ended in 2010. A workshop related to the department manufactured the high-technology solar house devices.

“It was preferable to manufacture the solar house devices directly from the [department] rather than buying them from the local market, because by doing this, we did not need to adjust them technically to fit our solar energy system,” Khattab says.

She says some of the devices, like the dryers and water treatment equipment, are not available in the local market.

Solar house appliances are more expensive than their traditional-energy counterparts, but with time, they become cheaper because they obviate the need for electricity and gas.

“The biggest advantage of solar energy devices is that they are the only sources of energy in water- and electricity-deprived locations,” Khattab says.

Similar solar house projects were also developed in Latin America, India, China and most recently in Africa.

If these solar systems are well-designed and use a sound, effective technology at moderate costs, the quality of life in needy areas will undoubtedly improve, Khattab says.

Analyses carried out by solar energy staff on several energy systems proved that the usage of photovoltaic system is too expensive. As a result, their usage is only confined to refrigerators to optimize costs. The systems investigated and tested for the solar house project are chosen according to their simplicity, affordable cost and good performance.

The systems will be installed in needy areas within three to four months, although the exact number of households to be equipped remains uncertain due to funding issues. The systems include filtration, heating and cooking devices and a small biogas unit for producing gas from food leftovers.

Seeing the solar house equipment’s impact on the ground will enable the Solar Energy Department (SED) team to evaluate the benefits of solar energy. "Since most residents of these areas don’t know much about renewable energy and how to use the solar house devices, we will provide them with training courses,” Khattab says.

A new, simple technology used by Ibrahim al-Sisy, a professor at SED, processes contaminated water through the sun’s ultraviolet rays by using light blue transparent plastic bottles. These bottles have to be exposed to the sun rays for at least two hours for the water to be safe to drink.

Sisy is convinced that legislation should promote the use of renewable energy resources. Mass media and civil society institutions should promote awareness surrounding the necessity of utilizing the technology of solar energy and other renewable energy in the desalination, purification and processing of water, as these technologies yield enormous economic and environmental returns.

According to a study Sisy conducted, humans have made use of solar radiation throughout history to warm homes and dry agricultural crops. Ancient Egyptians used solar energy to bake bread, and in the Arabian Peninsula the sun was used to dry meat.

Replacing traditional energy resources with renewable energy sources has become urgent due to increases in the price of electricity and Egypt's limited quantities of raw petroleum and strategic reserves.

According to the study, the price of a solar water heater may reach up to LE4,000, while an electric heater costs only LE700. But annual costs associated with running the solar water heater amount to LE415, while the annual cost of an electric heater comes to about LE1,370.

The solar water heater is environmentally neutral compared to the electric heater and has a longer life span. According to the study, a solar water heater lasts up 15 years, about five years more than the traditional electric heater.

For agriculture, Samir Ragab, Professor at the Vegetation Department in the National Research Centre (NRC), conducted several experiments which proved that hydroponics, a soilless and waterless agricultural system that uses only nutrients to grow plants, is ideal for people living in remote energy-deprived areas.

In remote desert locations, residents are isolated from markets and suffer from a lack of fresh vegetables. This negatively affects the health of the inhabitants, particularly children and pregnant women, who are deprived of the vitamins and minerals present in fresh food.

To develop this upgraded system of cultivation, researchers from the solar energy division of the NRC have manufactured solar energy operated water pumps. These pumps are malleable, can be easily moved and are suitable for areas lacking water for sustainable cultivation.

The hydroponics system was applied to produce fresh vegetables in the desert and regions cut off from electric grid. To apply this system on a bigger scale, Bedouins in the desert could be supplied with the materials and training to engage in this type of cultivation.

On the advantages of the hydroponics system, Ragab said that it is an environmentally friendly system through which plants may be cultivated with or without artificial soil. In addition, it also permits many plants to grow in one unit of a cultivated area while using low quantities of water.

Mohamed Abdullatif designs solar driers at the NRC. These driers use effective food preservation technology, which can replace the drying of agricultural, aromatic and medical produce through oil burning, a process is detrimental to the quality of the products. Traces of mazout prevent these products from being exported, because their quality does not comply with international standards.

Since drying in the sun proved unsuccessful, the SED developed solar energy driers, which are highly efficient due to their ability to control thermal and humidity rates. Recent models of solar driers contain a thermal storage unit that stores the heat that is used at night; thereby the drying process continues day and night. Importers have not refused exported products dried in this way.

Demand for the driers is high. Some of the driers have been supplied to the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Desert Research Center in Matariya, Marsa Matrouh, Toshka and private farms.

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