Egypt’s solar energy, to Infinity and beyond

 By Criselda Diala-McBride

To achieve a secure energy future, the North African country is diversifying its power mix with the help of renewables…

Blighted by a series of power outages that nearly brought the economy to its knees, Egypt started to look to the sun for a solution. Today, the government hopes to harness solar energy’s potential by converting a vast, remote arid land in Aswan – located in the country’s southern territory near the Nubian Desert – into an ambitious photovoltaic (PV) plant.
Occupying a land area of 37 square kilometers, Benban Solar Park has attracted around 2.8 billion of investment, according to Ehab Farouk, manager of planning at New and Renewable Energy Authority (NREA).
By 2019, Benban will be home to 32 power stations, each with a capacity of around 50 megawatts (MW), putting the solar park’s total capacity at 1,600 MW. Recently, Egypt moved closer towards realizing Benban’s potential following the inauguration of Infinity, the plant’s first power station.
Once fully operational, Benban will also hold the distinction of being the world’s largest solar power installation. But more importantly, it will help the country achieve its target of transforming its energy mix by generating 20 percent of its installed capacity from renewable energy sources by 2022.
Currently, Egypt produces the majority of its electricity by burning oil and natural gas, which, with dwindling fossil fuel production and plummeting prices, is not sustainable to meet the power needs of the Arab world’s most populous country. Farouk said launching an expansive project like Benban makes sense for Egypt, which is one of the Global Sun Belt countries.
“Egypt is endowed with high intensity of direct solar radiation ranging between 2,000 and 3,200 kWh/m2/year from north to south. The sunshine duration, meanwhile, ranges from nine to 11 hours per day from north to south, with very few cloudy days,” he added.

"Infinity" solar power panels in Benban (Egypt Today)

Infinity is just the start

According to Bloomberg, the inaugural power station at Benban will have 200,000 solar panels and 780 sun trackers, which will help maximize the panels’ productivity by allowing them to automatically follow the movement of the sun throughout the day.
As the first phase of the solar energy feed-in tariff project, Infinity, which was developed by German company Ib Vogt GmbH and Egypt-based Infinity Solar SAE, will be connected to the national grid. The electricity it will generate can light up around 20,000 households, the report noted.
But Infinity is just the beginning. One of the companies is already working on constructing the second phase of the project. Infinity Solar has confirmed that the next phase of power stations will have a capacity of 130MW and will be completed in the first quarter of 2019.

A boost to the economy

Overall, the Benban Solar Park is expected to give Egyptian economy a much-needed boost. Already it is providing employment to 10,000 people and could save the country 2 million tons of carbon emissions.
The project and other renewable energy initiatives are also significant in helping prevent a power crisis, similar to what the country experienced in 2014, from happening again.
During that time, daily blackouts lasting up to two hours caused serious disruption to naval traffic in the Suez Canal, resulting in losses of around $5.7 million in just one day. Industrial activities were also hampered, with experts estimating losses at around $56.6 million.

Inside the control room in Benban (Egypt Today)

“Egypt’s energy system has been facing major challenges. Therefore, it became necessary to ensure its flexibility and efficiency, in order to avoid problems, such as unsustainable production and increased demand,” said Farouk. “Reforms are crucial to enable the energy sector to meet the needs of the Egyptian people, not only in the present, but also in the future.”
Part of these reforms is the government’s creation of the Sustainable Energy Strategy to 2035, which seeks to “ensure the technical and financial sustainability of the energy sector, while targeting energy diversification through renewable energy and a gradual subsidy phase-out plan by 2020″.
NREA data also suggests that Egypt’s renewable energy push will have far-reaching socio-economic effects, including generating 5,250 direct jobs and 52,400 indirect jobs.
Renewable energy projects will also increase Egypt’s installed capacity to 10,480 MW by 2024, and lead to fuel savings of around 6,344 ktoe (thousand tons of oil equivalent). In addition, these projects are opening up doors for foreign direct investment. Benban Solar Park alone has attracted international investors, including the International Finance Corporate (IFC) and a consortium of lenders, which poured $653 million into the project.
With these developments, the future looks bright for Egypt’s solar energy sector.

READ MORE: Gas as a bridge by Robin Wylie

about the author
Criselda Diala-McBride
Dubai-based journalist with 20 years of experience writing and editing finance, aviation, tourism, retail, technology, property and oil and gas articles for a range of print and online publications.