Egypt has the potential to produce 53% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, according to a 2018 assessment from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Egypt’s current energy strategy calls for input from renewables to generate 20% of power capacity by 2022, rising to 42% by 2035. IRENA’s more optimistic view can be partly explained in terms of financing, as the agency sees the 50% objective as reachable if investment levels are increased sufficiently.
The discrepancies between the IRENA target and those of the government are also the result of a strategic difference: the public energy plan largely overlooks power derived from biomass and concentrates instead on modestly expanding hydroelectric power and achieving more ambitious growth in wind and solar. Domestic agricultural and municipal activities produce more than 30m tonnes of solid biomass waste every year, though the country lacks the infrastructure necessary to exploit it at scale, and the formulation of a tariff system that would make the construction of such a system worthwhile remains a work in progress. That said, in the areas where the government has recently focused its attention, it has managed to make promising gains.
Hydroelectric energy is the most mature of Egypt’s renewable energy sectors, and in the 1960s and 1970s it accounted for almost half of the country’s power. Egypt’s principal source of hydropower is the Nile River, on which five hydro plants have been built. The High Dam facility has an installed capacity of 2100 MW, while plants at Aswan, Esna and Naga Hamady bring Egypt’s total hydro potential to 2800 MW.
The government has renewed its investments in the development of hydroelectric infrastructure. The new plant at Assiut is being built on a new barrage 400 metres downstream of an existing one, and will feature four turbines with a combined production capacity of 32 MW. Once fully operational, the Assiut facility is expected to produce 245m KWh annually, which will save the country around $15m per year in spending on conventional fuel, according to an estimate from the Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy.
The government’s strategy also involves a move away from the Nile. In March 2018 the administration signed a 100% concessional financing agreement with Chinese state-owned enterprise Sinohydro, in order to construct the Middle East’s first pumped-storage power plant at Suez. The 2400-MW plant is designed to operate at peak hours, powered by the gravitational flow of water from an upper reservoir to a lower one. During the off-peak period, surplus power will be used to reverse the flow and replenish the upper reservoir. Its development is estimated to cost $2.6bn and is expected to be completed in 2022.
While hydro remains the largest renewable source of power, Egypt’s energy roadmap intends for it to be eclipsed by wind and solar by FY 2021/22. The first wind farm was established at Hurghada in 1993, and the country’s wind atlas shows an abundance of additional potential, particularly near the Gulf of Suez, where wind speeds average 8-10 metres per second at a height of 100 metres. More recent surveys have found promising areas on either side of the Nile River, in the Beni Suef and Minya governorates, as well as in El Kharga Oasis, in the New Valley governorate. Wind speeds at these locations vary from 5-8 metres per second, making them suitable for electricity generation.
In 2001 the New and Renewable Energy Authority (NREA) began cooperating with a number of countries to develop large-scale domestic wind farms, and by 2015 it had developed 750 MW in capacity. Nearly a dozen more projects were under development or at the tender-building phase in 2018, including a 2000-MW capacity project by the German firm Siemens, which will include a site to manufacture the turbines’ blades.
Most recently, in July 2018 Egypt inaugurated one of the world’s largest wind farms at Gabal El Zayt. The facility extends a pre-existing farm and will utilise more than 300 turbines to ultimately produce up to 580 MW.
Both hydro and wind will play important roles in achieving the government’s renewables targets. However, over the course of 2018 the sector’s greatest capacity gains were made in the solar arena. While small-scale solar systems were first installed in the 1980s, it was not until the publication of the nation’s solar atlas in 1991 that the technology’s true potential became apparent. Egypt has one of the most favourable solar radiation intensities in the world – it enjoys 2900-3200 hours of sunshine annually, and total annual radiation intensity varies from 2000 to 3200 KWh per sq metre, with the greatest intensity in the south.
Public works to boost solar generation capacity are taking place across a range of technologies. The NREA has overseen the development of centralised, grid-connected, photovoltaic (PV) plants at Hurghada and Kom Ombo that have installed capacities of 20 and 26 MW, respectively. Distributed PV systems, meanwhile, were first attached to the grid in mid-2014 as part of a scheme to install panels on the rooftops of government buildings. That system can produce up to 3 MW, and a further 32 MW of distributed capacity have subsequently been developed for remote villages. Concentrated solar power arrived in Egypt with the construction of a plant in the Kuraymat area, where a solar component and a gas-fired plant can produce 20 and 120 MW of energy, respectively.
While Egypt’s solar potential has yet to be realised, projects in the pipeline will soon lead to a steep change in its productive capacity. In January 2018 ground was broken at Benban, in the Western Desert, on what will become the world’s largest solar installation. The project has proved to be a magnet for foreign investment – a consortium of regional and global aid and lending institutions has provided a $653m debt package to finance the construction of 13 solar plants, and six private power companies are currently involved in the project. The project is expected to cost $820m and will eventually erect 32 plants with a combined peak capacity of 752 MW.
“With Benban, Egypt is moving forward to diversify its energy mix and to build the country’s renewable generation capacity,” Hassan Aly Hassan Amin, country development director in Egypt for Acwa Power, a Saudi energy portfolio manager, told OBG. “This is an important step, as it will reduce government spending on subsidised oil and natural gas while freeing up funds to be used in downstream value-added industries.”
According to the governor of New Valley, Mohamed Al Zamlout, China’s Aton Energy has offered to build a 250-MW solar plant in the governorate, as the first phase of a larger project. The New Valley is already a focus of the national solar strategy: in 2018 it received LE1.1bn ($61.8m) for the operation of 533 solar irrigation wells. The NREA also signed a $23.8m agreement with Spanish energy company TSK Grupo to build a 26-MW solar park in Kom Ombo, which is supported by a soft loan from the French Agency for Development.
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