From a distance, the endless landscape of solar panels stretching into the horizon can easily be mistaken for crops nearing harvest. But here, in the southern Egyptian desert, workers have been cultivating another precious commodity: electricity.
After the sun shines on the photovoltaic solar panels, a thermal load generates electricity that reaches four government-owned power plants that distribute power through Egypt’s national grid.
It is part of the country’s drive to increase renewable energy production. With near-perpetual sunshine and windy shores on the Red Sea, experts say Egypt is well positioned to go green.
However, it is also a developing country and, like many others, faces obstacles in making the switch. Much of its infrastructure depends on fossil fuels to power a nation of some 104 million people.
The solar panel farm, Egypt’s flagship project named Benban, after a local village, puts it at the forefront of the African continent when it comes to renewable energy.
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Karim el-Gendy, a Chatham House expert who specializes in urban sustainability and climate policy, says Egypt has failed to meet its target of 20% of its electricity coming from renewables by 2022. The current figure is now more about 10%. according to the International Energy Agency.
There is less demand for solar energy, partly due to the influx of natural gas, thanks to new discoveries located in the Egyptian section of the Mediterranean Sea.
“We have seen less interest in the last two years in integrated renewable energy projects in Egypt, both in terms of solar power, in the south and wind,” he said.
As host of this year’s global climate summit, known as COP27 and now underway in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt has said it will press other nations to implement climate pledges made at previous conferences. . Egypt is not subject to any carbon emissions cap, but has pledged to mitigate and curb its emissions increases in key polluting sectors such as electricity and transport.
Its use of natural gas has also helped, allowing Egypt to move away from burning coal and oil, much dirtier industries, but gas is still a fossil fuel nonetheless.
Speaking from Sharm el-Sheikh, President Joe Biden, who was attending the climate conference, said on Friday that the United States, the European Union and Germany will provide a $500 million package to finance and facilitate Egypt’s transition to clean energy, and accelerate the country’s economy. ambitious objective of reaching the production of 42% of the electricity generated by renewable sources in 2030, five years earlier than previously planned.
Biden also announced that he would work with Egypt to reduce green gas emissions by capturing “nearly 14 billion cubic meters of natural gas, which Egypt currently flares, vents, or filters from its oil and gas operations.”
“Because of this cooperation, Egypt has raised its climate ambition,” Biden said, referring to the climate goals that nations must submit to the United Nations under the Paris Agreement.
The Egyptian government has revealed few details about how it will implement or finance the 2035 vision, or the revised 2030 plan that the US and Germany mentioned in a joint statement with Egypt on Friday. Foreign investment is likely to play a significant role as countries in Europe look south for solar power. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has allocated $10 billion of funds for more than 150 projects across Egypt, and Benban is considered one of its major successes.
The sprawling farm is designed to grow as demand for solar power increases.
“It offers great potential for us and other investors,” said Faisal Eissa, general manager for Egypt at Lekela, a Dutch company that has invested in Benban.
Egypt’s New and Renewable Energy Authority says Benban has already reduced the country’s annual output of greenhouse emissions. But there is still a long way to go. In 2020, renewables accounted for 6% of Egypt’s energy consumption, according to the US Energy Information Administration, petroleum products accounted for 36% and natural gas for 57%. Coal accounted for only 1%.
Egypt may also have less incentive to invest in renewable energy as it grapples with domestic challenges, including an economic crisis sparked by the coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine and a years-long government crackdown on dissent. Last month, Cairo reached a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund that would allow access to a loan of 3,000 million dollars.
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The effects of climate change are already being felt in the Nile River delta, where rising sea levels have brought salt that eats away at roots and weighs down farms, devastating the livelihoods of Egyptian farmers.
The most populous country in the Arab world accounts for just 0.6% of global carbon dioxide emissions. But it faces high levels of urban pollution. Most of the population lives in densely populated neighborhoods along the fertile banks of the Nile and its northern delta. Here, fumes from cars and diesel-powered public transportation clog the streets. Egyptians’ exposure to air pollution is, on average, 13 times higher than the guidelines recommended by the World Health Organization. It was responsible for 90,559 premature deaths in 2019, according to statistics collected by the UN
The country’s congested capital city, Cairo, is the second leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, after the gigantic offshore Zohr gas field, according to Climate TRACE.
The remaining 90% of the land of Egypt is an uninhabitable desert. By making better use of the vast expanse and coastlines, the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency said the North African country could generate more than half its electricity from renewables by 2030.
It’s a different way to see the country’s sun-scorched landscape.
“People here have started to see the sun as a source of energy,” said Ahmed Mustafa, who runs one of the many new logistics companies in the area that work alongside Benban developers and engineers, supplying them with equipment.
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For the locals, the solar farm has been transformative. Thousands worked on the site when it was under construction, with many staying on as technicians and cleaners once it was fully operational.
Ultimately, developing more wind and solar capacity will come down to what makes business sense for the government, despite its expressions of good intentions, according to el-Gendy.
“The need to expand its renewable sector depends on Egypt’s commercial interests,” he said.