Egypt’s future energy mix

Omnia Haridy, Tuesday 12 Dec 2023

Omnia Haridy explores prospects for the growth of renewable energy in Egypt amid rising global challenges

renewable energy
renewable energy


It’s 6pm sharp, time for a two-hour power outage in our neighbourhood of Cairo. Students race to finish their homework before that time, while residents of large apartment blocks try to be home before the lifts stop working. It’s been like this since July this year, and people are trying to cope with the government’s power-saving schedule of outages in the hope that the temporary energy shortage will soon be over.

Even so, energy seems to be getting more and more scarce globally, and perhaps it’s about time that countries and individuals take more initiatives to generate clean energy without relying on a complex electricity grid or environmentally polluting fossil fuels.

Seeking alternative energy sources is in the headlines now more than ever with the rising frustration concerning the continuation of power cuts in Egypt and the challenges facing the world regarding supplies of natural gas, particularly in the wake of the war on Gaza and the war in Ukraine. These two wars have affected the supply of natural gas worldwide, causing an unprecedented hike in energy prices. 

Energy is as important as food and water and is the source of all development activities. It is more urgent than ever to look for more sustainable solutions. Clean and renewable sources of energy, including solar and wind energy, are seen as effective alternatives to traditional sources of energy like fossil fuels. Egypt is sunny throughout the year, and this makes it eligible for the expansion of solar plants as a sustainable and environmentally friendly source of energy.

It may take time to achieve a major shift to such renewable sources of energy, but experts insist that a number of measures should be taken now in that direction.

According to cabinet spokesman Sameh Al-Kheshin, “the power outages in Egypt are temporary and are due to a shortage of gas supplies to Egypt.” He explained to a local TV talk show recently that a two-hour power cut nationwide was meant to reduce loads as consumption had increased due to a noticeable increase in temperatures that had lasted into the autumn and had put additional pressure on the electricity grid. 

He added that the consumption of electricity had exceeded normal limits when compared to past years and had also coincided with a slump in gas imports from 800 million cubic feet per day to zero. To ensure the continued supply of electricity, Al-Kheshin said that loads had had to be reduced until the temperature dropped. He added that things should be back to normal soon.

However, the power cuts have persisted, despite the fact that it is already winter and many feel disappointed that things are not yet back to normal.

Economist Medhat Nafie said that Egypt is rich in petroleum products and their derivatives, but that past government decisions to export gas had proven to be ill-advised.

“In the past, we had a surplus of natural gas, and we were able to export gas during the era of former president Hosni Mubarak,” Nafie said. “Some government officials at the time opposed the idea of exporting gas out of fears that Egypt would face shortages in the future due to urban expansion. It is a non-renewable energy resource, and the government already had plans for building new satellite cities.”

In 2015, the Zohr Field was discovered, and it has since become the provider for half of Egypt’s natural-gas consumption as well as a main source for exports, in addition to the share taken by the Field’s foreign partner. “Any problem occurring in the Zohr Field impacts Egypt’s energy resources and is of paramount importance,” Nafie explained. 

There has been news of technical problems affecting the production of the Zohr Field, with commentators saying that such problems were part of the reason why Egypt has been facing power shortages. 

The government has denied such reports, assuring the public that the field’s production rates are up to standard. However, some experts have noticed a drop in the official figures indicating that Zohr production rates this year are lower when compared to the same period in previous years.

This slump in production, experts speculate, has probably affected power stations that consume about 70 per cent of gas production in Egypt.

SOLAR ENERGY: Whatever the causes behind the recent power outages, the consensus remains that it is time to look for alternative solutions.

This is what energy expert Hani Al-Nokrashi recently told Good Morning Egypt, a popular talk show on Egypt’s state-affiliated first TV channel. “If the world continues to produce electricity in the same way, by burning fossil fuels or nuclear plants, it should be noted that both will be depleted within 60 years,” Al-Nokrashi warned. “If we wait any longer, the world will soon run out of energy, and there will be struggles as countries race to purchase what’s left of the energy reserves.” 

Egypt has a great source of renewable energy in the shape of the sun, he said. He added that the country also does not have to build giant solar energy stations to meet the demand.

“The best and fastest solution would be to focus on creating small solar power stations that would serve demand on the spot. This would save the energy that is wasted transporting it from giant power stations to different target areas. Every house, for instance, could install its own solar panels that would suffice for its energy consumption.”

Moetaz Abdel-Maguid, an engineer who holds a Master’s degree in energy engineering from the Berlin University of Technology, concurred. In a paper published by the Journal of the Planetarium Centre of the Library of Alexandria, Abdel-Maguid warned that “there is not much time left before all forms of fossil fuels run out.”

“Seeking alternative sources of energy has become a matter of life and death,” he said.

“While energy exists around us in every area of life, the challenge facing humanity now is how to adapt and employ this energy in the best way possible. Fortunately, there are many ways to benefit from alternative sources of energy without harming the environment.”

According to Abdel-Maguid, “the total solar energy released every year is approximately 35,000 times the total energy needed for all human activities on Earth, but more than a third of this energy is either absorbed by the Earth’s outer atmosphere or reflected back into space.

“Solar energy is thus still used on a very small scale compared to its immense benefits.”

According to PV magazine, a leading global solar and storage media platform, the Egyptian government has recently announced plans to invest $1 billion to develop large solar-energy projects in attempts to counter serious energy shortages. The project would probably take years to address the current shortages, however, through the building of several solar-energy plants such as the Shamsak Ya Masr, a national solar energy initiative.

Maysa Azab, CEO of the Association of Scientific Centres in North Africa and the Middle East and editor-in-chief of Science Planet magazine, agreed with Abdel-Maguid that “the amount of solar energy available from space is billions of times that used in our daily lives.

“Although the Earth receives only a fraction of the total energy of the sun, solar energy remains the largest and unparalleled source of power,” Azab said. “Solar energy will solve the energy problem in the long term, but the sooner we start and the harder we work, the shorter this term will be.”

A documentary film titled The Giant Green Technology, which has been recently released by National Geographic Partners, a US leader in geography and exploration, perhaps corroborates Azab’s viewpoint. This presents a successful experiment in the US state of Nevada, where a large solar energy plant, perhaps the largest ever built on an area of 265 football fields, has been used to produce clean energy from the sun using mirrors that help to focus solar radiation. 

The documentary also shows how the expansion in building traditional power stations using fossil fuels to meet the doubling global demand for energy has resulted in major air pollution. The amount of carbon dioxide emitted by such stations has reached 1.2 tons per capita yearly, in addition to the huge amount of other toxic gases released from the same plants. 

That said, the film laments the fact that many governments still fund the construction of such plants as they consider them to be a cheaper source of electricity compared to more expensive alternatives. Solar-energy plants, the film shows, remain the least supported by governments today, despite the huge costs that coal, for instance, inflicts on the environment.

Burning coal for electricity has been found to be responsible for releasing 40 per cent of all the planet’s carbon dioxide, in addition to other toxic gases and lead and zinc. 

Many experts argue that the costs of solar energy will be reduced over time and perhaps be as cheap as coal in the long term. The high costs of establishing a solar-energy plant will soon be mitigated by the fact that its operation and source of fuel are both free. The fact that the energy collected from the sun can be stored during the day, only to be used later after sunset, will also reduce costs. 

Many new kinds of solar cells have been manufactured to produce electricity in a more efficient manner, without consuming fuel that pollutes the air. They are also durable and do not require heavy maintenance.


WIND ENERGY: Wind is another environmentally friendly source of energy, and it seems that the government has been taking steps to develop this too.

Mohamed Al-Khayat, chair of Egypt’s Renewable Energy Authority, announced in a statement last June that Egypt would soon launch the largest wind-energy power station in the world with a capacity of 10 Gigawatts (GW) in Upper Egypt’s Sohag governorate and in partnership with the UAE. 

The plant will be built on an area of 3,000 square km, he said, and it is expected to produce about 42 per cent of all the electricity that would be generated by renewable energy sources in Egypt by 2030. 

However, this plant is only part of the country’s ambitious strategy to transform Egypt into a regional energy centre capable of exporting clean electricity to Europe, Asia, and Africa. 

The country has already started taking steps in that vein. Last year, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Emirati President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) regarding the project on the sidelines of the UN COP27 Climate Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh.

Meanwhile, Abdel-Maguid told Al-Ahram Weekly that “wind energy is another important alternative energy source to fossil fuels.

“Wind energy is abundant, renewable, and can be widely distributed,” he noted. “It’s a clean source of energy that does not occupy a large amount of land to produce. A wind plant includes a group of turbines to generate electricity from the wind. Large plants may include several hundred turbines and can be built on areas extending to hundreds of square km. The same land where the wind turbines are built can also be used for agriculture.”

The Zaafarana Wind Plant located on the Ain Al-Sokhna Road is a case in point. “The plant operates hundreds of wind turbines and contributes significantly to the production of electricity,” Abdel-Aziz noted. “It’s an excellent model that should be replicated elsewhere.”


TIDAL ENERGY: Wave and tidal energy are also viable examples of renewable energy since they exist in nature and are never exhausted. 

Ahmed Hossam, professor of engineering at the Higher Institute of Public Health in Alexandria, said that “wave energy depends on three main sources: tidal energy, sea currents, and sea waves.” 

Egypt has 2,000 km of coastline west of Marsa Matrouh that could be used to produce energy from the waves, according to Hossam. In a speech at the ninth International Conference on Technology and Sustainable Development 2030, he said that wave energy is one of the most important sources of renewable energy in Egypt, which, if properly used and developed, will put the country in a much better position compared to other developing countries. 

Egypt is on the Mediterranean Sea, and this is among the main sources of wave energy.

“Tidal energy, albeit not yet widely used, also has great potential as new source of electricity in the future,” Hossam said. “It’s a more predictable source than both solar and wind energy.”

Challenges exist, however, due to the high costs of tidal energy as well as lack of its availability. “Nevertheless, recent technical developments and new kinds of generators may facilitate the use of tidal energy and reduce its costs in the near future,” Abdel-Maguid said.


GREEN HYDROGEN: All eyes seem to be focused on the use of hydrogen in producing clean energy.

Hydrogen, according to Abdel-Maguid, is now considered to be one of the most promising future sources of energy, as well as the simplest and most widespread element on Earth. 

“There are several ways to use hydrogen to produce energy,” he explained, adding that it has many advantages that put it on top of the alternative energy list that should be relied on in the future as a source of clean energy. 

“Hydrogen does not produce toxins, by-products, or excessive heat that could ultimately cause global warming, disrupting the ecosystem,” Abdel-Maguid explained. “Hydrogen is one of the most effective sources of both renewable and non-renewable energy. Hydrogen-produced energy could also operate a machine for a longer period of time, compared to other sources of power.”

Al-Khayat told the press that there has recently been much demand to invest in green hydrogen. Since January this year, about 5,200 square m have been allocated for investment in green hydrogen in addition to other areas. 

“Many new areas have emerged as viable for investment in green hydrogen,” Al-Khayat said. “Studies concluded with two hydrogen production areas; one is located west of Aswan on an area of 16,000 square km and the other is west of Sohag on an area of 9,000 square km.”

Minister of Electricity Mohamed Shaker said that nine memorandums of understanding out of a total of the 23 signed at the COP27 are already in progress. One signed to produce electricity from hydrogen has already been scheduled. He said that the government’s energy strategy aims to increase the percentage of renewables in the production of electricity to almost 42 per cent by 2035.

Nafie warned that current figures indicate that there will be further shortages in natural gas unless new reserves are built up, especially as many essential industries including fertilisers, petrochemicals, and iron and steel consume huge amounts of natural gas and electricity.

Solar energy is an excellent alternative if well used, and the government already plans to rely on it for many uses by 2040. Nafie said that Egypt already has sufficient power plants, with power shortages originating in shortages of the fuel required to feed them. These were due to the country’s reliance on gas as a main source for operating energy-intensive industries such as fertilisers, cement factories, and aluminium factories, the latter being the most consuming of all.

They rely on gas for production, with electricity bills being up to LE5.5 billion a year. 

Nafie said that this reliance on fossil fuels was the reason why Egypt is facing shortages of electricity and not its exports of them, as some people may think. He referred to official statements by Minister of Petroleum Tarek Al-Molla, saying that Egypt stopped exporting gas last summer and that what is now produced is allocated almost entirely to local consumption. 

“This means that there is an urgent need for the development of new sources of renewable energy;” Nafie concluded.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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