Egypt’s Standout, All-round Renewable Energy Potential

A solar power park

Egypt has high potential in clean and “green” solar and wind power, and biogas, biodiesel and hydrogen fuels, with many, excellent applications, and needs modern, efficient and sustainable investments for this.

Electricity Sources

Renewable energy in Egypt is two groups. Electricity sources: solar and wind power, and three types of fuel: biogas from agricultural, animal and organic waste, biodiesel from special trees, and in future, hydrogen produced via concentrated solar power. Starting with solar power, all of Egypt is very sunny, especially the hotter south, and solar power peaks with the hot summer and intensive air conditioning use. Egypt’s installed electricity capacity in 2020 was 59.5 Gigawatts (GW), of which only 1.5 GW was from solar power and 1.7 GW from wind power (a total of 5.4%). Egypt’s upside solar power potential is estimated at 120 GW, which can be added over 40 years via Build-Operate-Transfer investments country-wide. In those, the investor builds the stations, sells electricity to (Egypt’s) state, recovers the investment with moderate, pre-agreed profit, and then transfers ownership for free to the state, which saves high costs, and gains world-class infrastructure with a qualified workforce. The two main types of solar power are photovoltaic (PV) cells and concentrated solar power (CSP). The former is lower in cost, hardly needs water and is much more flexible and extensive in its uses, while the latter provides very intensive electricity and suits high-electricity factories, oil refineries, water desalination and treatment, and sewage treatment. CSP stations are water-intensive and need to be near the sea. Egypt’s Red Sea is perfect for that and for heavy industry, being near most of Egypt’s known mineral wealth.

PV power has many potential, country-wide applications. Great strides in world technology have made renewable energy cheaper than that of fossil fuels, and allowed considerable electricity storage in batteries. CSP technology allows electricity generation even at night, while PV batteries allow electricity storage very useful as reserve for cloudy days. This allows rooftop PV solar power for remote-area homes free of electricity networks, plus considerable cost-saving power for upscale homes. Apartment building residents can share the cost of PV rooftop solar power and profitably sell electricity to the national grid, giving them income and saving many costly and polluting natural gas-fired electricity stations. This should be encouraged nationwide with more favorable electricity purchase prices for apartment buildings in downscale areas, as it would quickly generate a large and profitably exportable electricity surplus. Egypt’s power grid is already connected to most Arab countries and to Europe, and the nearby Levant countries, Turkey, eastern and northern African and eastern European countries are all current or potential electricity buyers. Meanwhile, other PV applications include for light-medium industries, offices, groundwater pumps and irrigation systems, and mining and quarrying. Solar power can be complemented by wind power in the windier and less sunny areas.

Wind power is important in Egypt, and offers several advantages. Lower in cost and space required, and needing no water, wind blows round the clock, and picks up at night and when it is cooler and less sunny, thus complementing solar power perfectly. Electricity can also be stored in batteries. Egypt’s wind atlas has long-ago been fully and accurately mapped, with some areas of the country windy enough for wind power alone. The windiest areas are along the Gulf of Suez, in southern Sinai, Middle Egypt around the Nile Valley, Dakhla and Kharga Oases in the Western Desert, and the Mediterranean coast during winter. Egypt’s upside wind potential is estimated at 30 GW, which can be added over 30 years, also via country-wide, BOT investments. Egypt would best attract investments in large, efficient power stations (such as 1.5 GW solar power farms and 1 GW wind farms), and pay for electricity via Power Purchase Agreements (PPA), which are more cost-saving than the currently employed Feed-in Tariff (FIT) schemes which entail high and escalating costs for higher electricity output levels. In the windiest areas along the Gulf of Suez, wind can power factories, homes and touristic venues. In the other areas mentioned, hybrid solar/wind stations and equipment can generate power and be used for those purposes plus farms and irrigation. Importantly, switching to clean, quiet and orderly electric vehicles and leading the nascent Arab and African market would utilize surplus electricity very well to save most of the costly and polluting oil fuels used. Lucrative electricity exports would make large-scale renewable energy investments worthwhile.

Fuel Sources

Biogas is important in power generation, industry and homes in many countries. In 2019, Egypt generated agricultural waste + animal waste + organic solid waste totaling 60 million tons, 80% of which was unprocessed. A special process (“anaerobic digestion”) of catalyst-assisted, water and oxygen-free heat treatment of that waste breaks it down into methane (biogas), carbon dioxide (CO2), top-quality compost (organic fertilizer), and wastewater. The environment-friendly biogas can efficiently and profitably transform Egypt’s energy, industry and agriculture sectors, and save a high, valuable volume of petroleum and natural gas. Anaerobic digestion would yield biogas equivalent to 0.72 trillion cubic feet (Tcf)/year of natural gas; 35% of 2.08 Tcf consumed in (more indicative of underlying, pre-COVID-19 trends than 2020). Top-quality compost of 17 million tons/year would also be produced; equivalent to 3.3 million tons of organic fertilizers or 35% of total fertilizers used per year.

Egypt now generates biogas via some of its cement factories for fuel and local rural communities to produce compost, but much more production and widespread use are needed. Biogas can save Egypt billions of US Dollars, either as is or oxidized into bio-methane for use in power stations and especially in blast furnaces of energy-intensive thermal industries such as steel, high-tech, aluminium, copper, ceramics and glass. Allocating biogas equivalent to 0.32 Tcf/year of natural gas can fuel all industry needs, and end the imports and use of the costly and polluting coal as fuel. For cement factories, alternative fuels also include dried sewage sludge and oil shales. Biogas would also sharply cut pollution and environment-harming CO2 emissions by all the thermal industries. Another 0.2 Tcf/year natural gas equivalent of biogas can be used in thermal power stations; which would save all the 1.6 million tons of oil fuels used there in 2019, thereby very nearly and single-handedly achieving national self-sufficiency in petroleum.

In urban, rural and remote areas across Egypt, 0.1 Tcf/year natural gas worth of biogas can safely, efficiently and cheaply fuel cooking, water boilers and heating in homes. This would save electricity, natural gas and LPG (butane gas cylinders), benefit rural and urban low-income families, help give remote-area homes energy independence, and save the high costs of building electricity and natural gas networks there. Finally, the remaining 0.1 Tcf/year natural gas worth of biogas can fuel taxis currently running on gasoline. Biogas, plus output from Egypt’s giant “Zohr” field and other new fields, would secure a natural gas surplus to allow exports, meet future, rising demand, and allow higher output and exports in fertilizers, petrochemicals and other industries.

The use of biofuels, extracted from various plants and trees for renewable energy, is growing worldwide. For instance, corn is used to produce ethanol fuel oil. This is criticized for replacing essential food growing. Fortunately, growing jojoba, saguaro and jatropha trees (all native to Mexico’s hot, dry deserts) on new, marginal lands and algae in greenhouses can together yield Egypt 4 million tons of biodiesel fuel equivalent to 40 million barrels/year and worth billions of US Dollars. Pressing the jojoba tree’s fruits typically yields a substantial and petroleum-saving 3.5 tons of biodiesel/hectare of crop. Grown in hot desert areas worldwide including nearby southern Israel, and still in small numbers in northern Egypt, jojoba trees are pest-free, cheaply maintainable, and can live over 100 years when well-kept. Perfectly for Egypt, the trees are heat, aridity and salt-tolerant, water-efficient and sandy soil-friendly. Jojoba biodiesel, combined with diesel fuel, can fuel trains, buses, high-intensity machinery and electricity generators in mines and quarries, and existing fuel-powered groundwater pumps, as well as sharply cutting pollution and CO2 emissions. Growing jojoba trees is recommended on 85,000 hectares in the north to yield 300,000 tons of biodiesel/year.

Jatropha trees, though less water-efficient and salt-tolerant than jojoba trees, have much higher yields: 10 tons of biodiesel/hectare. Grown in very hot countries such as Mexico, India and Brazil, jatropha trees are also aridity-tolerant and sandy soil-friendly. The seeds are pressed to yield top-quality, 27–40% pure biodiesel used in 50%:50% combinations with jet fuel or as 20% biodiesel train fuel, while the seed cake after pressing is also usable for biogas generation. In Egypt, experimental growing of jatropha trees at Luxor, irrigated via treated wastewater, was a success; with biodiesel output yields/hectare among the highest worldwide. Jatropha trees can be grown on 150,000 hectares to yield 1.5 million tons of biodiesel/year, on the Toshka Farms in the south. For optimal jatropha oil utilization, the following usage hierarchy is needed: 1) Jet fuel, 2) Trains, and 3) Cargo trucks. As airplanes and their fueling stations are far fewer than cars, conversion in airplanes (already successfully applied) would be more efficient, less costly and easier to carry out and standardize in Egypt, while for trains and trucks, biodiesel’s track record of safety and efficiency are already proven.

Algae produce excellent jet fuel, and are cultivable with high yields in greenhouses across Egypt via “hydroponic” farming with no soil and minimal water, to easily and cost-efficiently yield 200,000 tons. Lastly, the use of saguaro tree pulp to produce biofuels is a recent discovery by Mexico. Saguaro pulp oil is quite similar in quality and applications to jojoba oil. Nevertheless, the trees, which are related to but much larger than prickly pear trees and with very similar and equally tasty fruits and large, edible pads, have a much higher average biodiesel yields of 8 tons/hectare. Saguaro biofuel output in Egypt has superb potential as the trees are very tall, hardy, water-efficient and salt-tolerant, live over 150 years on average, need minimal care, and contain very large amounts of pulp. Three new sandy zones with salty groundwater in the north of Egypt’s Western Desert, with a total area of 250,000 hectares, are recommended for growing saguaro trees to yield 2 million tons of biodiesel/year.

Hydrogen has tremendous future potential. It is the ultimate clean fuel, as hydrogen waste bonds with oxygen to form pure, clean drinking water (H2O). However, on earth hydrogen bonds with oxygen, as well as with carbon (CH4) to form fossil fuels, and must be separated by a still costly, electricity-intensive and less efficient process. The best method is by electrolysis of water via concentrated solar power in stations on the water-rich coasts. Egypt has the strong sun and electricity surplus necessary for this. Fossil fuel primacy regrettably continues and the decarbonisation process should continue to be led by solar and wind power, but two important niches exist for hydrogen. To start, in the six key thermal industries mentioned above, gas-fueled blast furnaces are essential, and here the clean hydrogen can replace the costly and polluting fossil fuels.

Those industries are common and important in Egypt, and factories should be on the coasts near hydrogen plants also supplied with renewable energy, and desalinated, treated and multiply re-used seawater. The Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts merit special focus as ideal locations for Egypt’s heavy, thermal industries, in six special zones near the raw materials and far from resort tourism. Lastly, electric vehicles are proliferating, but long-haul transport batteries are bulky, heavy, time-consuming and costly to charge, while hydrogen batteries would work very well for large trucks, trains, river and seaborne cargo, and air traffic. As costs and technology improve, hydrogen’s role can only grow. Egypt needs to firmly establish itself in this new field, and importantly, establish a very profitable hydrogen fuel supply depot just east of Port Said: on the world’s busiest, Suez Canal shipping lane. All-round renewable energy potential abounds for Egypt over coming decades, given good vision and policies.

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Business & policy analyst since 1988 at The World Bank (DC), The Arab Fund (Kuwait) & others. MBA in 1993, & six books & regular articles published since 2013.

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Tarek Shafey

Tarek Shafey

Business & policy analyst since 1988 at The World Bank (DC), The Arab Fund (Kuwait) & others. MBA in 1993, & six books & regular articles published since 2013.

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