Towards a solar future in Egypt

Abul-Abbas Mohamed, Tuesday 12 Nov 2019

Egyptian engineer Ibrahim Samak, responsible for high-profile solar-energy projects in Germany, talks about the future of solar energy in Egypt to Abul-Abbas Mohamed

Towards a solar future
Towards a solar future

Egypt has always relied heavily on oil and gas as energy sources, and until a few years ago it has also mainly depended on power plants fuelled by oil and coal, with no companies working on generating renewable energy and an absence of solar power stations.

Egypt’s 2035 Integrated Sustainable Energy Strategy changes this situation, and it intends to increase the supply of electricity generated from renewable sources to 20 per cent of the total by 2022 and 42 per cent by 2035, with wind providing 14 per cent, hydro-power two per cent, and solar 25 per cent.

Egypt currently has about 500 MW of wind power plants in operation and 1,340 MW under development, in addition to three privately owned independent power producers (IPPs) with a total generation capacity of about 2.5 GW.

In September 2014, the Ministry of Electricity and Energy and the Electricity Regulatory Agency launched a feed-in tariff support system for solar and wind energy projects with a capacity of less than 50 MW, encouraging individuals and small companies to invest in the production of solar energy.

Aswan’s Benban Solar Park, the world’s largest, is also now complete. Built over the course of more than two years, all parts of the park are now operational. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) said earlier this month that it had almost completed funding the park, which cost LE6 billion in investments.

Egypt’s Science Advisory Council that includes top scientists and experts in various fields is directly affiliated to the presidency. Its members include energy expert Ibrahim Samak, born in Luxor and with a degree in engineering from Assiut University and known as “the father of energy” in Germany where he has lit the streets of 150 districts using a smart bulb that stores solar energy during the day and lights up the streets at night.

Samak’s company Engcotec GmbH installed the solar roofing on the central railway station in Berlin and on the parliament building in the same city. He talked to Al-Ahram Weekly in his office in the German city of Stuttgart about Egypt’s solar future using new and renewable sources of energy.

The Benban Solar Park in Aswan, the largest in the world for the production of renewable energy, will soon be inaugurated. How do you see energy use changing in Egypt?

Our culture on using new energy has changed. I believe this is due to the encouragement and enthusiasm of the political leadership, which promotes the use and investment in this form of energy to achieve needed development and economic goals. I believe this is the first phase of the Egyptian state’s strategy, namely allowing investment companies the opportunity to become involved in the new forms of energy. The second phase will be to give Egyptian citizens the lion’s share.

There are several reasons for choosing Benban as the location of the new Solar Park. First, the land belongs to the state, and there is no dispute over ownership. The land is also even, and when the project was offered to investors they jumped at the chance. It is one of the few places in Africa where there is such a giant power plant that includes several projects and is producing renewable energy.

When do you think Egyptian citizens will come to appreciate the significance of this project, and how will it benefit them economically?

I believe that after this solar plant begins operations, Egypt will likely be a powerhouse for energy generation. This should be followed by a grid connecting Egypt with other countries in the region, such as Sudan, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. After generating the electricity at the park, the grid can supply power to these countries, and as the project expands, we could even extend the grid to Europe.

What is key to the economic feasibility of these new energy projects is their storage capability. The projects should use half the energy during the day and store the rest for use at night, which means there will be no need to buy large amounts of electricity. The grid and its capacity are also essential for the projects’ success. As the culture of using renewable energy spreads, all projects that generate energy in Egypt should be connected to the national grid, which means that it must be able to cope with this production. I know there is ongoing development of the grid in Egypt.

You have previously talked about your aspiration to use sand from Sinai to produce solar panels to offset the high costs that remain a problem. Have any steps been taken?

I am delighted to tell you that as we speak there is a military production project that has already started using Sinai sand to manufacture solar panels. It’s a proud moment when you see the “Made in Egypt” sticker on them. If this venture is successful, it will be a leap forward for the industry. It will encourage citizens to invest in energy and begin to attach panels to the roofs of their homes to generate electricity. I repeat, storing energy during the day is the key to the future of these projects.

What is needed from citizens to participate in these investments? Presumably there will be funding available to buy solar panels and other materials.

We must learn from the German experience. In Germany, anyone who wants to install solar panels on their roof, takes their plan, feasibility study, and deed or rental contract of the property to the bank and receives funds with this as collateral. The citizen pays nothing. A contract is signed to transfer all the funds for the project from the bank, and the bank takes its interest payments and payments on the loan, and the rest is pocketed by the client. These are usually 20-year contracts, and the loan is paid back within 10 years. After that, the client becomes the sole owner. I believe the Egyptian banks are looking into this process, and I recently participated in a conference on funding and the needed guarantees.

Are the banks in Egypt unenthusiastic?

We need a promotional campaign. I will try to contact the minister of energy with this in mind.

What about hospital roofs and airport runways? Could they be used for these projects?

We can do the same on hospital roofs, especially since the roofs of houses are often cluttered, while hospital roofs are large and clear. If solar panels are installed atop a hospital, then that hospital can generate its own electricity, using half in the morning and storing the rest for night use. This would mean it would never have power outages and its medical equipment would not stop working.

As for airport runways, everyone knows we have the first project around the world that uses airport runways, since they have vast expanses of unused area. We have put solar panels around them and generated electricity for airports. It has been a huge success, and now the idea is being implemented elsewhere.

As a son of the south, where is Upper Egypt in your dreams and aspirations? What renewable energy projects are needed the most to transition the area out of poverty?

We are currently studying an important project to improve conditions and services in Upper Egypt. It will be a 2020 surprise, and I won’t give you any details now until we complete all the paperwork. We hope it will be our main project in the coming phase. I can give you a hint that it will begin in Luxor, the city of my birth.

Are there effective steps being taken to incorporate renewable energy in university education and develop curricula that promote this in the job market?

There is serious and substantial attention being given to this issue, and it is moving in parallel with the projects I talked about. It’s no secret that Egypt’s New Administrative Capital has started the construction of the first German University in the country that will include renewable energy as one of its disciplines. It will adopt the same standards and system as the German universities in Germany, which certainly have positive outcomes.

What about the Egyptian universities?

I believe there are plans to work with the universities in Assiut, Cairo and Alexandria. Some universities have classes on the new projects that the government is focusing on right now. In the 2020-2021 academic year the universities should adopt new policies consistent with benefiting from and implementing these projects.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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