It’s a scandal that until now Egypt has been indifferent to solar energy. That the sun shines brightly upon Egypt nearly every day of the year has made Egypt’s failure to make a large-scale switch over to solar energy as its source of electric power is beyond comprehension. Ths is particularly so considering that 90 percent of Egypt’s vast land mass is desert – there will be no sacrifice of farm land involved.
Currently, renewable energy contributes a relatively low percentage of Egypt’s total electricity output compared to countries in Europe as well as Japan which have far less sunny days than Egypt and yet produce far more of their electricity from solar energy. Much of Egypt’s renewable energy come from wind farms although solar energy in a country like Egypt and most of the rest of the Arab world is obviously more reliable than wind.
Sisi declared that Egypt was about to start clean energy projects to combat climate changeAbdallah Schleifer
But it appears that is all about to change. This past Tuesday, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi addressed the U.N. World Summit on Climate Change in a very brief speech on behalf of all Arab states which is media worthy in itself.
But the speech and the Summit itself was overshadowed by expectations for far more dramatic speeches to be delivered the following day at both the General Assembly and the Security Council - including a much longer speech by Sisi, among others.
Sisi’s climate control speech stressed that developments to end poverty and measures that will counter the harmful effects of climate change must occur simultaneously. Now when one considers that proposition, the only viable way of meeting both goals is a dramatic commitment to renewable energy that reduces if not eliminates the greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal, oil and gas to generate electricity, energy and heating. It is these emissions that rise into the atmosphere (and pollute the immediate atmosphere) and trap the heat generated by the sun to result in rising global temperatures.
With that in mind, Sisi declared that Egypt was about to start clean energy projects to combat climate change, and added that developing renewable energy is one of his top priorities.
This was already apparent in the days just preceding Sisi’s trip to New York. Egypt’s minister of electricity declared that the production of renewable energy would no longer be a government monopoly – that private investors would be encouraged to build solar energy plants as well as wind farms with the capacity to convert solar energy into electricity which the government would then purchase. The minister also announced that low interest loans –estimated at four percent per annum - would be available to stimulate private sector involvement in producing and selling electricity.
The undercurrent to these developments and official promises of swift action are the massive power cuts earlier this summer, seemingly caused by the gap between the growing demand for electricity which outstripped the local production as well as the importing of fuel to run the government’s poorly maintained network of stations generating electricity.
Those power cuts have led not only to general inconvenience but also to reduced production, increasing unemployment. The extent of the power cuts for the general public has been reduced over the past month but at the cost of reducing the amount of electricity provided to otherwise round-the-clock industrial enterprises, thus further reducing national product and lay-offs of workers employed in double shifts that have been cancelled.
Solar energy also directly facilitates the reduction of desertification and by so doing increases the amount of land available for agriculture. With its lengthy Mediterranean and Red Sea coastlines, Egypt could import, or preferably manufacture and extensively deploy, solar –powered desalination units (which have been available for decades) which could generate a significant amount of fresh water for agriculture and an ever growing population. Increased availability of fresh water from solar-driven desalination would make for massive afforestation – green belts surrounding the new cities that are springing up in the desert.
According to my sources, it has been estimated that less than five percent of Egypt’s non-arable land, if transformed into solar energy plants, could generate all the electricity needed in Egypt as well as a surplus for sale to Europe.
Yet the government is still modest in its initiatives based on stimulating private investment in the production of electricity via renewable energy, with the minister expressing hope that 20 percent of Egyptian electricity will be generated by renewable energy by 2020.
What is needed
What is needed alongside incentives for private investment in renewable energy projects is a far more systematic and expansive government program to produce a renewable energy generation of electricity. The investment would be tremendous but could work considering the extraordinary results of President Sisi’s campaign to raise 68 billion Egyptian Pounds in investment certificates or bonds with a guaranteed annual return of 12 percent for the Second Suez Canal project. The investment certificates, which were offered only to Egyptian citizens and Egyptian companies, were sold off in but eight days and not, as expected by the government, in anywhere from one to three months.
Once back in Egypt, President Sisi can once again appeal to an Egyptian public more directly attuned to resolving the energy problem than it was to the possibilities of expanding the width and thus income of the Suez Canal.
Inspired by both a direct and repeated presidential appeal and a generous return on the investment certificates, which would also appeal to foreign investors, it is not inconceivable that the 100 or 200 billion Egyptian Pounds required to meet Egypt’s ever growing demand for electricity will be met. With such a guaranteed domestic market for solar panels there is no reason why a joint venture with China – today the world’s leading producer of solar panels – could produce some of the solar panels that would be required for the massive sites. That means jobs would be generated as well as electricity.
Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.