Towards cities powered by the sun

Our sun shines every day, yet solar energy remains an elusive commodity. We are told that the answer to this paradox is simple: harnessing this clean and renewable source of energy is too expensive.

But the scientists persist. Egypt has an advantageous geo-strategic location and a virtually unmatched ability to tap solar energy, either through photovoltaic cells or thermal energy processes. So the government, environmentalists and Europe are coming together with the hope of introducing more solar technology to Egypt.

Under the administration of the Ministry of Electricity, the New and Renewable Energy Authority was established in 1986 to assist in the augmentation and diversification of Egypt’s energy sources. At the authority’s headquarters in Nasr City, panels of solar cells are situated on top of lampposts where they gather the sun’s radiation and convert this energy into a direct electric current that illuminates the area. 

The authority’s General Manager of Planning and Follow-up, Mohammad el-Khayat, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that "in February 2008 the government announced its plan to attain 20 per cent of its energy needs from renewable sources of energy by the year 2020."

"At the present time hydro-electric power generates approximately12.5 per cent of the country’s electricity–primarily from the electric turbines powered by the falling waters of the Aswan Dam–while wind power constitutes around 1.7 per cent of total electric energy production." Solar energy accounts for only a fraction of a percent of electricity generation, while over 85 per cent is generated by carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

"The purchase of solar cell panels, along with their installation and operation, costs five times as much as electricity-generating wind mills," el-Khayat explains.

"Egypt presently has an official capacity of five megawatts worth of electricity-generating solar panels," he says. "This is not much. But take into consideration that there is a capacity of over 120,000 megawatts worth of electricity-generating windmills and wind-technology installed worldwide. As for solar-energy technology there is only about 500 megawatts worth of electricity-generating solar cells installed worldwide."

The government has set up the Solar & Integrated Energy Power Plant in the town of Kuraymat, near Beni Suef, about 90 kilometers south of Cairo. The Kuraymat project will be fully operational by the second half of 2010, according to el-Khayat. The expected total electric power to be generated by this project is estimated at 852 giga-watt hours per year.

"From 2012-2017 we plan on installing a capacity of another 20 megawatts worth of solar photovoltaics in southern Egypt," says el-Khayat, though this part of the plan is still being researched.

There are also smaller projects working on the installation of photovoltaics for indoor illumination in Matrouh Governorate. "The Italian government is now working in coordination with the Egyptian Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs on a project involving the fitting of electricity-generating solar cell panels. Their aim is to connect 50 houses, schools and mosques with artificial lighting via electricity produced by solar photovoltaics," says el-Khayat.

Another positive development is the use of photovoltaic cells in the commercial sector, primarily for the illumination of billboards and advertisements along desert highways and rural areas where electricity grids are not present.

The initiative getting attention these days, however, is the Solar CITIES (Connecting Community Catalysts and Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Systems) project, which was initiated by six environmental activists in November 2007.

The project is spearheaded by Thomas Culhane, an American urban-planner, and his German wife Sybille Frutel. This team has since managed to install 33 handmade solar-powered water heating units around Cairo, with seventeen such units in Manshiyet Nasser, fifteen Darb el-Ahmar, and one in Dokki.

The Solar CITIES Egypt project was launched in Manshiyet Nasser, and was initially funded by USAID through the Spirit of Youth NGO, which maintains its own recycling school for children. This NGO has received US$25,000 worth of funding for this project from January 2008 until June 2009. Since then, funding has dried up and the team is currently looking for alternative funding from the German Agency for Sustainable Development (GTZ) among others.
"We have been able to manually construct these solar water heating systems by using and recycling scrap materials found in the dumps here," Culhane told Al-Masry Al-Youm during an interview in Manshiyet Nasser.

"All that is needed is two barrels: one for storing cold water, and the other for storing water that is heated by the solar panels to the temperature of 50 degrees Celsius. For the solar panels we use large aluminum boxes which we fit with copper pipes, Styrofoam insulation and pipes connecting the panels with the barrels. These solar water heating systems are 85 per cent more energy efficient than the traditional gas or electric water heaters."

Hanna Fathy, a resident of Manshiyet Nasser and a member of the Solar CITIES team, has installed a solar heating system on his rooftop. "It costs about LE600 to 800 to purchase an electric or gas-powered water heater and to install it indoors," Fathy says. "On the other hand it costs around LE2800 to 3000 for us to purchase the material, to assemble it, and finally to install one of these bulky solar powered water heating systems, which are typically installed on rooftops."

Despite the price difference, Fathy thinks that the solar system is worthwhile."On the upside, this solar water heater saves energy in the short-run and it saves money in the long-run," he says. "Unlike gas-powered water heaters. the solar heaters don’t leave black smoke marks or rings on ceilings or walls. Furthermore, with solar power there are none of the dangers associated with gas leaks and explosions. Plus it lasts for around 25 years. The solar heater requires minimal maintenance, unlike the electric or gas heaters. This maintenance only involves cleaning off the dust from the solar panels twice a week, more frequently on dusty days. A single solar power heater may service two or three apartments, supplying around 10 to 20 individuals with hot water each day."

Solar-powered water heaters are manufactured in Egypt by the Olympic Company and the Banha Company for Electronic Industries, as well as others. They are for sale across the country at just over LE3500 per unit.

According to Fathy, it will take a while for solar energy to become truly widespread in Egypt. "Appliances are not presently geared towards this. We can continue to import expensive solar panels, or we can attempt to produce them locally at lower expenses," he says. Culhane adds: "What is lacking here is the capital to do so."

According to Culhane, "the governments of California and China are actively encouraging their citizens to make the shift towards solar water heating systems. This sort of official encouragement and sponsorship is lacking in Egypt and in so many other parts of the world."

The Solar CITIES team is concurrently working on the installation of biogas digesters which are fueled by organic garbage (primarily kitchen waste) and produce methane for clean cooking gas, and also for the powering of electricity generators. This rudimentary biogas contraption originated in India. The team has already installed five such digesters around Cairo, and hopes to move into the field of wind power.

Fathy will to travel to Tanzania in December to attend workshops and share his technical expertise about solar water heaters and biogas digesters with environmentalists there.

Culhane says that "people in Egypt will begin to make the move to solar power, biogas, and other renewable sources of energy when the Egyptian government lifts its subsidies on natural gas and oil. These subsidies keep the prices of fossil fuels artificially low, and as such people are not motivated to invest in clean and renewable energy."

But the issues at stake here are not only the local. Climate change and global warming associated with increased carbon emissions have spurred individuals, NGOs, companies, and states across the globe to search for alternatives to polluting fossil fuels.

With little to no subsidized fuel and fewer hours of direct sunlight per year, European companies and states have expressed a keen interest in tapping into the solar potentials of Egypt and North Africa.

Desertec is one such initiative. The project was proposed by a consortium of 12 European companies, based in Germany, which seek to supply Europe with 15 per cent of its energy needs by 2050. The vast majority of electricity generated in Egypt and North Africa will bypass these countries and head to Europe by way of high-tech, underwater cables which suffer little conductive loss of power. The initiative’s planners hope to start supplying Europe with electricity by 2015.

"This initiative is still in its planning phases, but we have no role in this plan," el-Khayat says. "Apparently this is going to be massive project, but it is to be planned and implemented by private sector companies. Siemens Egypt is already involved in this endeavor."

Another proposed initiative is the Mediterranean Solar Plan. This state-sponsored plan was proposed on 13 July 2008 at the Paris Summit for the Mediterranean Region. It seeks to establish a technological capacity of 20 giga-watts in the region by 2020, including 10-12 giga-watts of concentrated solar power. El-Khayat indicated that this plan was being studied by the Ministries of Electricity, Environmental Affairs, and Scientific Research.

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