Anyone who has passed through Cairo during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan will have taken one visual memory home with them: the sight of row upon row of lights – flashy, fizzy, gaudy and kitsch – dominating the streetscape at every turn. After sunset in Egypt’s capital, when the day’s long fast finally comes to an end and families join together to eat a giant iftar (breakfast), it often feels like the whole of this ancient city has been draped in neon. But this year the festive bulbs weren’t quite so ubiquitous, thanks to a series of power cuts that plunged parts of Cairo into total darkness – and which left the country’s beleaguered government scrambling around for a new set of energy solutions.
The outages, which brought protesters out onto the streets in many parts of the country, were partly a result of 2010′s exceptionally hot summer and partly a consequence of Ramadan, when a great deal of economic activity shifts to the night-time hours. But they also underlined a long-term crisis at the heart of Egypt’s energy policy – the growing gap between domestic demand for power and the country’s ability to supply it. With a demographic explosion driving electricity usage up by 13 per cent this year alone, it’s becoming painfully clear that the existing, long-underfunded energy infrastructure is creaking dangerously under the strain.
That’s why government ministers have spent the last few weeks unveiling a blitz of controversial new energy projects, including the construction of a $1.5bn (€1.2bn) nuclear reactor on the Mediterranean coastline. Controversially, they’ve also thrown open Egypt’s waters to deepwater drilling. Shut out of US oil and gas fields by President Obama’s moratorium on deepwater drilling following the Gulf of Mexico accident earlier this year, many companies are now setting up shop in Egypt instead; Transocean, the firm that owned the fateful Deepwater Horizon oil rig, has already been operating in Egypt for years, while BP has just signed up to a $9bn gas extraction deal in the Mediterranean.
But there could be an alternative in Egypt’s drive for energy security, and it lies in the baking sunshine and fast-blowing winds that sweep across this desert nation with remarkable consistency. “Egypt’s potential to be a centre of renewable wind and solar energy in the Middle East is huge,” says Engineer Samir Hassan, executive director of RCREEE, an independent renewable energy think tank based in Cairo. Wind speeds in the Gulf of Suez average 9-10m a second, far higher than those recorded at similar sites in Europe, and the World Bank has just approved a $210m loan which will help Egypt develop 10 GW of wind energy by 2022. Meanwhile the country’s first solar farm should connect to the grid within the next six months.
“We’re not a rich country and we don’t have the luxury to sit around talking about this issue,” warns Engineer Hassan. “We need to develop alternative sources of energy now.”