CAIRO – 1 March 2019: Some 25 percent of employees are working in the agricultural sector, which makes up about 12 percent of Egypt’s grow domestic product (GDP), according to Statistica, and about 14 percent according to Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), and with new incentives by the government to allow more young businesspersons invest in the agricultural sector, which is seen by many to be a great way for Egypt’s economy to grow quicker, especially given its ability to export agricultural products to Africa and Europe, solar-powered irrigation has become increasingly important in Egypt.
From governorates allowing individuals to rent plots of land and plant them for three years and then transfer ownership of the land to them, given that the investor pay rent for 24 months, as Major General Mohammed al-Zamlout, Governor of the New Valley governorate, tells Egypt Today, to the Ministry of Environment giving loans to investors who plan on planting certain fruit trees that reduce carbon dioxide, according to a statement by the ministry, it is clear that Egypt is on the path towards more sustainable, efficient, cost-efficient and innovative agricultural habits and concepts.
Egypt moves towards solar-powered irrigation
Since 2009, Egypt has worked on and implemented its strategy, dubbed ‘2013 Sustainable Agricultural Development’ (SADs), which the two-fold aim of achieving the sustainable use of agricultural natural resources, and improving the overall agricultural productivity.
In October 2017, Egypt signed an agreement with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that encourages Egyptian investors, agricultural businesspersons, farmers and the government to use solar-powered irrigation pumps and systems. The deal stipulates that the FAO will provide technical support to the government worth $276,000 (LE 4,867,260). The agreement, which targets Egypt’s Western Desert, works on providing clean energy to farmers at minimum prices and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Albeit the agreement was enacted in September 2018, Egypt’s government has been using solar-powered irrigation since 2014, after it was proposed to President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in his first term, as a way to improve water governance and reduce the misuse of water resources.
Moreover, Egypt has built the world’s largest solar power plant: Benban solar park, which is set to generate the equivalent of 90 percent of the energy produced by Aswan’s High Dam. Already home to the most important electricity production plant in Egypt, Aswan is set to bear and implement Egypt’s dream of having 20 percent clean energy by 2022, and 37 percent clean energy by 2035, according to a March 2018 statement by Minister of Electricity and Renewable Energy Mohamed Shaker. Named after a Nile River village close to the power plant, Benban will cover Egypt’s electricity needs and edge it forward on its path to becoming the region’s energy hub.
Benban, built in the eastern region of the Sahara Desert, is set to produce between 1.6 and 2.0 GW of solar power by mid-2019. Engineer Ahmad Fathy, Head of Projects Sector in Upper Egypt in the Egyptian Electricity Transmission Company, told Egypt Today that after the effective launch of Infinity, work will start on Vas Station. According to Fathy, the park is set to start working at its full capacity at the start of 2019. As it stands, the project has received no incentives. Still, it has signed a 25-year contract with the state-owned Egyptian Electricity Transmission Company (EETC), who will buy its electivity at a rate of 7.8¢/kWh, pegged to the value of the U.S. dollar. Currently, 29 projects have been financed at a total of $1.8 billion, producing almost 1.5 GW of solar power, on the 14.3-square-mile plot of land.
How does solar-powered irrigation work?
Farms use irrigation systems on a daily basis to water their crops. Conventionally, the pumps used for watering said crops were powered with diesel or electricity, however, by using solar power as an energy source, farmers can secure a better, safer power source and reduce pressure on the national power grid, agricultural engineer Aly Abdel-Atti tells Egypt Today. The irrigation expert, who specializes in planting fruit trees, explains that solar-powered pumps are equipped with solar cells that absorb solar energy and then convert them into electrical energy through a generation, which then powers the electric motor for the pump.
Solar energy is optimum for those looking to plant crops that needs to be watered everyday, explains Ahmed Aly, an agricultural engineer to Egypt Today. “Some crops do not need to be watered daily, others do not need to be watered at all; however, for those who are looking to plant crops, or are already planting crops, that need to be watered on a daily—or near daily basis—a solar-powered irrigation system can cut up to LE 30,000 of expenses a month. I also believe that there is something special about using natural resources to water crops,” Aly states, explaining that solar-powered water pumps can work from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Supporting this, Youssif Galal, vice-president of the City Council of Esna, tells Egypt Today that the plant established in his city by the Arab Renewable Energy Company (ARECO) of the Arab Organization for Industrialization (AOI) only costs farmers LE 200 monthly and can run from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Moreover, Othman el-Shaikh, Project Manager of the ‘Building Resilient Food Security Systems to Benefit the Southern Egypt Region’, tells us that although farmers will bear the cost of the plant maintenance and management, they will save up on money by reducing costs and limiting their use of diesel.
Albeit the cost of establishing solar power grids being more expensive that using diesel at the beginning, explains agricultural engineer Mohamed Sayed, who is located in the New Valley governorate in North Egypt, the running costs favours solar power. “You pay a lot upfront,” Sayed says, “but overtime solar-powered irrigation will save you thousands and is also more reliable. Solar systems, generally speaking, have a life of 25 years, meaning that you will be able to get the costs back and then some.” Likewise, Engineer Magdy El-Shahat, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Irrigation in the New Valley governorate, tells Egypt Today that the solar-powered irrigation proved its absolute effectiveness in saving expenses and the high cost of electricity and diesel, and the consequent failures that accompany using electricity or diesel, and also has many benefits from cutting expenses to ensuring the increase of the use of clean energy in the governorate and the country.
In line with the new standards imposed by the government to ensure that better crops are produced, farmers are now favouring solar-powered irrigation systems due to their effects on crop roots as a result of the drip irrigation mechanism commonly used in eco-friendly systems. “Using solar energy to power irrigation mechanisms can reduce the amount of weeds that grow and reduces the spread of diseases among crops,” explains Sayed, adding that using drip irrigation can also increase the effectiveness of chemicals used to kill weeds. It also ensures that farmers use water more reasonable, he explains, adding that it is easy to relocate these systems if there is a need to do so.
Still, there is the question of being able to store solar energy on hot, sunny days to balance out the days when the sun is barely out. When asked about this, Mechatronics Engineer Khaled Mohamed explains that there are batteries made for this exact purpose that can store the energy transmitted on sunny days. However, according to altE, a website that focuses on all that is new and renewable energy, “Using batteries may complicate an otherwise straight forward application. Instead of storing electricity in batteries to run the solar pump at non-sunny times, most people prefer to store the water in a holding tank. This results in the same effect, water when you need it, with less cost and less complexity.” Despite this, the website explains that there is an exception to this: When using a booster to increase the pressure of the water. This is because “you may need to boost the pressure at night or on rainy days, batteries are required to provide power whenever pressure is needed,” according to altE.
Given that Egypt has been ranked as the Arab country receiving the most sun hours annually, according to a study by the Environment and Climate change Research Institute (ECCRI) in April 2012, the government has started using solar-powered irrigation as a way to eco-friendly, low-cost system. This, coupled with Egypt’s irrigation potentional of 4.42 million hectres and a total renewable surface water resource of about 56 kilometres cubed per year, according the ‘National Investment Profile. Water for Agriculture and Energy: Egypt’ published by the FAO, COMESA, AgWA and the Egyptian government, makes Egypt one of the top countries that could use solar-powered irrigation systems. In similar vein, the vice-president of the City Council of Esna tells us that due to Egypt enjoying abundance in sunshine, it has great potential for social energy and has an extraordinary opportunity to abandon non-sustainable and non-reliable fossil fuel powered generators for the more sustainable solar-powered irrigation systems.