World’s largest solar power plant to open next year in Egypt

Around 640 kilometres south of Cairo, the $2.8 billion Benban park will be a big step forward in sustainability for a country that now derives 90 per cent of its electricity from oil and natural gas that has made the Egyptian capital one of the most polluted cities on the planet. John Dyer reports.

The Benban solar park will help Cairo overcome its air pollution troubles. (Image credit: Dominic Chavez / World Bank via Flickr)

Run by a consortium of international energy company, Benban’s 30 solar plants and 5 million photovoltaic panels will produce 1.8 gigawatts of electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. Around 4,0000 workers will operate the facility.

When completed, Benban will be a key factor in Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s goal of his country obtaining 42 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

Big players come together

“This is a big deal,” Benjamin Attia, a solar analyst with U.S.-based Wood Mackenzie, told the Los Angeles Times. “I can’t think of another example where so many big players have come together to fill the gap.”

Benban symbolizes a trend in the Middle East and North Africa. For years, renewable energy advocates have said the region could someday become a solar powerhouse.

Now it might finally be happening.

Demand for solar on the rise

GTM Research recently forecast that demand for solar photovoltaic panels is expected to grow by 170 per cent this year to 3.6 gigawatts, with Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates among the biggest growing markets, reported Clean Technica.

The Middle East and Africa now have around 12.3 gigawatts of solar projects now underway. Another 21 gigawatts are also now in the pipeline, GTM Research found. By 2023, the region will have 83 gigawatts.

The cost of solar energy, meanwhile, would likely decrease by almost a third in the next four years, GTM Research projected. The current cost is $60 per megawatt-hour.

Different reasons for going solar

Each country has their reasons for investing in solar.

Egypt was once an oil and gas exporter. Now it must import energy and recently took a $12 billion International Monetary Fund bailout to avoid an economic collapse. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are seeking to diversify amid plunging oil prices. Algeria and Morocco want to sell power to Western Europe.

In sub-Saharan Africa, solar power could turn on the lights in countries that lack electrical infrastructure.

Solar to provide jobs

Ghana’s is scheduled to open a solar park that will generate 100 megawatts of energy in March 2019.

“Most of the multinational companies that come to Ghana don’t put in infrastructure,” said Salma Okonkwo, chief executive of UBI Energy & Petroleum, the company overseeing the project, in an interview with Forbes. “They operate a system where they invest very little and they take it away. They sell their products and leave. I’m hoping to provide employment and add to Ghana’s economy.”

One-stop solutions

Ninety per cent of Congo doesn’t have electricity, for example.

BBOXX offers portable 50-watt solar panels and energy efficient lights, a television and other amenities.

“We provide everything, we install the wiring, the appliances, and we own everything, so the customers don’t need to worry about ever calling an electrician again or buying appliances,” said Max Gopfert, managing director of BBOXX, in Devex. “If something’s wrong with the TV, we’ll swap it. If something’s wrong with your solar panel, we’ll fix it.”

BBOXX has brought power to 5,000 households in Kinshasa and 2,000 in the eastern city of Goma. The company aims to serve as many as 400,000 households, or 2.5 million people, in the next two years. The company is also partnering with telecommunications company Orange to make it easier for people to pay their utility bills with their mobile phones.

‘Best market in the world’

Some might suggest that Congo is too tough a market, but Gopfert believed the opposite was true, especially given how solar power was growing exponentially throughout the region.

“This is potentially the best market in the world for what we’re doing,” he said. “There’s nowhere else where you have cities with big economic centres with real amounts of money that don’t have power.”

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