Amid the dunes of the Eastern Sahara, one of the world’s largest solar panel installations is underway. Near the southern Egyptian city of Aswan, approximately 7.2 million photovoltaic panels are spread over the desert, making the park visible from space.
The panels are part of the Benban Solar Park, a renewable energy project costing an estimated at $2.1 billion. The park is a power generation complex made up of 41 solar power plants, which, upon completion is poised to be the biggest solar photovoltaic park in the world. The plant feeds nearly 1.5 GW to Egypt’s national grid and as a result, has brought down the price of solar energy at a time when the government is phasing out electricity subsidies.
The project is in line with the Egyptian government’s Sustainable Energy Strategy 2035 that aspires to generate 20% of electricity from renewable sources by 2022. The Benban project’s 32 plots were developed by over 30 companies from 12 countries, including Alcazar Energy (UAE), Acciona (Spain), Total Eren and EDF (France), Chint Solar (China), Enerray (Italy), and Scatec (Norway).
With the excellent solar irradiation and dry clear weather at Benban coupled with low operating costs, the upkeep is largely limited to brushing the desert dust from the panels to maximise photon absorption. Mohamed Ossama, project head for Egypt’s Taqa Arabia, which has a 50 MW plot, reiterated that they didn’t need a lot of manpower.
Dr Mohamed Orabi, professor of power electronics at Aswan University stated that Benban had brought down the price of solar energy generation, and given Egypt’s southern region an economic boost. He added that the plant needed a better storage system, which was still a key technological challenge for solar power that surges during the daytime – to stabilise supplies to the grid.
In 2018, a report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) suggested Egypt could be more ambitious in its green energy goals and aim to supply 53% of its electricity from renewables by 2030. However, it said that developers could be discouraged by complex bureaucratic procedures, and urged Egypt to review its market framework and develop local manufacturing capacity for renewables.
Jessica Obeid, an energy expert at Chatham House stated that the (Benban) project showcased Egypt’s seriousness in doing renewable energy business, especially when most countries in the region had been stalling on this front, except for Jordan and Morocco. She added that in the next stages, political and policy stability would be important, reduction of the complex bureaucratic procedures and clear assignments of institutions’ mandates and facilitation of the process would be much needed.