Ra, Sustainer of Life

A nation that in ancient times worshipped The Sun God is home to a $3.5-billion solar power project.

This week, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt visited the White House for the first time since he seized power in a 2013 military coup. President al-Sisi had been persona non grata in Washington due to alleged human rights violations, but on Monday he was welcomed as a valued ally of the U.S.

Egypt Ra the Sun GodWe don’t think it was on the agenda, but there’s a subject of global importance that would have offered the Egyptian president the opportunity to turn the tables and lecture his American counterpart. If the conversation at the White House had turned to alternative energy, al-Sisi could have seized the moral high ground.

While President Trump has been busy in his first trimester in office eliminating clean-energy programs, decimating environmental regulations and ending “the war on coal,” Egypt is getting ready to bring online one of the largest utility-scale grid-connected solar power complexes in the world.

It surprises a lot of people to learn that Egypt is not a major oil producer. The Middle East’s most populous Arab nation is surrounded on both sides by some of the world’s largest oil reserves (in Saudi Arabia and Libya), but by a quirk of geology there’s only a trickle of black gold under the Egyptian sand.

However, the people who thousands of years ago invented mathematics and built the Pyramids in the Land of the Pharaohs aren’t sitting on their hands and waiting for energy independence to come to them. Next year, Egypt will throw the switch on a unique, $3.5-billion solar energy park that was given the green light by President al-Sisi in 2014.

The project, which is located in Aswan’s village of Benban in Upper Egypt, consists of 41 individual solar power plants with a total capacity of 1.8 gigawatts. The Benban solar power complex is built on an area of 14.4 square miles that was dedicated to the state-run New and Renewable Energy Authority (NREA) by a decree issued by President al-Sisi. The NREA divided the site into 41 separate plots and made them available to developers and companies to carry out individual projects.

Prior to construction, the NREA signed long-term agreements (lasting for 25 years) with the project companies. The 41 projects on the Benban site will be connected to the Egyptian high-voltage network through four new substations, which have been established by the Egyptian Electricity Transmission Co. These substations will be connected to an existing 220-kilovolt line that is about seven miles from the Benban site.

The electricity generated from Benban’s solar power plants will be distributed across the country, which needs its power capacity to grow by up to seven percent each year to meet demand. Officials estimate the project’s generated power will equal 90 percent of the electricity generated by Egypt’s high dam at Aswan, one of the world’s largest. The Aswan region was chosen for the solar energy park due to its continuous sunny weather; the area is said to average between nine and 11 hours of uninterrupted sunshine per day (with high temperatures reaching up to 131 F).

The solar power mega-project will bring a bounty of jobs to one of the poorest regions in Egypt, an area with chronic high unemployment. Officials estimate the Benban complex will create 6,000 permanent jobs once the new solar arrays are hooked up to the power grid. The government is requiring that workers from the Aswan area fill a majority of the jobs.

In March, Infinity Solar, an Egyptian company, and German-based companies ib vogt GmbH and Solizer GmbH & Co. KG announced that they secured a 64.1 megawatt peak (MWp) solar power plant project in Benban. The Infinity 50 project was jointly financed by Bayerische Landesbank (which loaned it 85 percent of the debt), with the remaining 15 percent coming from Arab African International Bank. The loan is covered by the German government through a Euler Hermes ECG, a risk insurance pool. The Infinity 50 Solar Park will house a solar array consisting of almost 200,000 photovoltaic panels mounted on a horizontal tracking system spread over an area of 98.6 hectares. Once operational, the plant is expected to produce over 110,000 MWh (megawatt hours) per year, equivalent to the electricity required to power almost 69,000 homes.

Egypt has initiated a program offering feed-in tariffs for wind or solar projects up to 50-MW capacity with an initial aim of securing 2,000 MW of wind capacity, 2,000 MW of solar capacity from installations greater than 500 kilowatts (kW) and a further 300 MW of solar capacity from installations below 500 kW. The Egyptian Electricity Transmission Co. offers a long-term power-purchase agreement with a price guarantee for 20 years (for wind) and 25 years (for solar).

Egypt is aiming to generate 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2022. In 2016, the United States produced about 16 percent of its electricity from renewables.

In the 25th century BC, ancient Egyptians worshipped Ra, a deity known as The Sun God. In the 21st century AD, their descendants are cutting out the middleman and getting their power directly from the sun.