By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD

Egypt has committed itself to generate 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, a target that the country’s renewables experts have gladly endorsed. Nonetheless, these self-same experts argue that “energy efficiency” is the more pressing priority for satisfying Egypt’s power generation needs, rather than renewables. Dr. Ehab Abdel-Rahman, Professor of Physics at the American University in Cairo, uses a simple analogy to illustrate this.

If prices go up should the average citizen borrow money and fall into debt or go through his accounts and cut spending? Obviously people should change their spending habits, and Abdel-Rahman is saying this, as the AUC’s Vice Provost for Research and Acting Director of Yousef Jameel Science and Technology Research Center, someone who is dedicated to promoting renewables and especially solar power in Egypt. Another renewables expert, Dr. Mohamed Bayoumi of the Cairo Office of the UN Development Program (UNDP), elaborates further that any kind of policy “prioritization” is always governed by cost-effectiveness, and the timeframe for projects. Energy efficiency measures take less time and are more cost-effective, meaning also that the “returns on investment” are of shorter period than with renewables. LED lamp conversions, for instance, can take place in few days with a return on investment of a year or a year and a half.

The more power saved, the less strain on the power generated through renewable energy, Bayoumi adds. The question then is how to devise policies that are feasible, effective and sustainable, while also determining how to measure their impact and identify key players in the efficiency game. Then, and only then, can Egypt shift gears and pursue renewables in earnest and on a national scale.

The Root Causes

An energy efficiency expert, preferring not to be quoted by name, goes even deeper in this regard. 50% to 60% of Egypt’s power problem is really an efficiency problem, he says, adding that the solutions are administrative, not financial – proper training and supervision, or “quality control.” The critical thing to realize, he says, is that power savings do not just apply to the consumer but the producer as well.

In Germany 1KW of electricity costs 6 cents of a euro; with taxes this becomes 15 cents. In Egypt the figure is closer to 45 pence from the pound, and that is before taxes kick in. This is because the staff at power plants is badly trained and there are all sorts of equipment failures – overheating, problems with cables, lack of maintenance – that leads to energy being wasted, and inflating the price of the finished good that is later subsidized to incur an additional financial burden on the state budget. He added that global “best practice” benchmarks exist that set out standardized efficiency measures, both for power plants, as in how much fuel is used to produce 1KW, and for consumers, as in how many KWs are used to produce a ton of steel or cement.

The trouble is in the Egyptian power sector, these figures are never stated beforehand, and failures are never advertised, even internally. The people that get blamed, he further revealed, were the petroleum sector. He was cautiously optimistic, adding that the government contracting Siemens and GE to build energy efficient-power plants was step in the right direction, but that transparency and coordination between the different stakeholders in the energy sector was the ultimate recipe for success.

We can add a series of technical solutions, citing Electrical Engineer, Mohammad Tarek. He explains that every power plant has to face these all too common problems that waste electricity. There is “voltage stability,” jumping up and down, which can damage all manner of plugged-in devices used by the consumer. There is the “power factor” problem, where excess electricity is often sent out from the power plant and consumed, for free, since it hasn’t been contracted for beforehand. There is also the issue of “wave harmonics.” Instead of a pure sign wave you get noise which affects the efficiency of motors and other devices powered by electricity. Finally there is summertime “humidity,” which introduces other problems to voltage stability for power plants.

Fortunately, there are affordable solutions to each and every problem, and from his experience, many of these problems are in fact being solved, in the current period. A bonus can be charged for any extra electricity transmitted to a customer, filters can be used to clear out noise along with proper maintenance of cables and the electricity grid, and heaters can be used to deal with humidity. As for the voltage problem, either the consumer can employ a dynamic voltage regulator or power plants can use a load tab charger.

Thinking in Steps

At the level of energy wasted by the consumer, Abdel-Rahman reveals a surprisingly effective way to reduce the electricity bill is building codes. Electricity is wasted on air conditioning (AC) due to the differentials between the temperature inside and outside an apartment, a house, or an office. Egypt’s building codes actually account for such differentials – insulation, building materials, air-leaks, etc. The problem, typically, is that the codes have yet to be implemented and enforced.

Bayoumi adds that lighting only accounts for about 10% to 20% of electricity consumption, while the bulk is taken up by AC. What the UNDP discovered was that by using LED lamps you can cut down on total electricity usage by 20-40%, because traditional lighting heats up the air to that extent. By his estimation it could only take 3 years for lighting conversion nationally, resulting in an annual 5% electricity savings. But meeting deadlines is critical. If the conversion takes 7 years then the savings will only be 1-2%, hardly noticeable. Energy efficiency, as well as renewables, have to be an entire process not a onetime intervention, he explained. The stages involved should begin with lighting conversion, followed by simple, inexpensive technologies to cut down on electricity usage like solar-water heaters, followed by renewables solutions like photovoltaic (PV) solar panels.

Greece and Cyprus both have learned to do without electricity for heating water, utilizing solar-water heaters instead, but with rigorous supervision. There is already an energy efficiency standard and labels program for home appliances, initiated by the Egyptian Organization of Standardization in cooperation with Ministry of Electricity, and with project support from the UNDP Energy Efficiency. The program, for the moment, covers AC, refrigerators, washing machines, electric water heaters and lamps.

UNDP also has a project with the Electricity ministry to establish testing labs for electrical appliances in the New and Renewable Energy Authority (NREA), with two additional standards for dish washers and fans in 2015 with plans to establish the relevant laboratories. Standards for more appliances are expected to be issued in 2016, says Dr. Bayoumi.

Sharing the Burden

Citing the UNDP also highlights the point that non-profit organizations can contribute to energy efficiency, whether in tandem with governments and the private sector or by themselves; a mix of such bodies is also called for. UNDP is more of a coordinating agency and a technology facilitator, explains Bayoumi, bringing in much needed knowhow and technologies from other quarters. It does not, however deal with research and development (R&D).

Organizations like the British Council can help fill this energy efficiency research gap, and specifically it’s Newton-Mosharafa Fund. Querying the Fund’s director, Michael Houlgate, you find their work covers everything from technology solutions, such as designing more efficient solar cells – electrical efficiency and reducing materials costs – to work on designing energy efficient-housing units for low income communities, specifically through better insulation and building materials. R&D also means coming up with country-specific technologies that can be produced locally in collaboration with centers of learning abroad. This was the case with the University of Nottingham and South Valley University when it comes to solar cells, he said.

The EUREM (European Energy Manager Training) program at the German Chamber of Commerce also deserves special mention, focusing as it does on providing both technical and business services whilst targeting a different category of social actors. Lead trainer Ahmed Yousef Ezzeldin explains that the “intensive” course provided by EUREM covers energy efficiency, R&D, training in risk-management, feasibility studies, and supply chain management for all measure of energy-related projects. And instead of focusing on raw graduates they train seasoned engineers in the public and private sector; the course is so intensive even some of these experienced engineers fail. The objective is to provide Egypt with internationally certified “European energy managers” at the level of decision-makers in the field, such as company heads and public officials. These are the people who can make a difference on a daily basis, and the program instructors often include former and current decision-makers, in and out of government.

Another distinctive feature of EUREM is that it does not just network with centers of higher learning. The real networking benefits come from the certificate holders themselves. The program keeps in touch with the graduates, keeping track of their careers and achievements in efficiency and energy-related fields while providing them with studies, data and even technology to help them in their chosen occupations. They, in turn, feed the knowledge community that is formed. A EUREM manager can deal with everything from: air-conditioning (again) to refrigeration (as used in LNG); thermal engineering (in factories); Green IT design (covers emissions and engineering analysis); renewables (wind, solar, geothermal, biomass); and optimization (in electricity).

Ezzeldin knew from his personal experience of manufacturers and construction companies that had set up their own in-house energy departments, making tremendous savings. They had been so successful, in fact, that they were able to issue IPOs and had expanded regionally, garnering partners now that they met ISO-energy efficiency standards.

A Measure of Success

The anonymous efficiency expert went on to say that even with the Eni mega-gas find, Egypt cannot attain energy self-sufficiency if 60% of those gas reserves are wasted due to the inefficiencies with the existing power generation/transmission system. That gas is better used to feed industry and for processing into plastics and fertilizer to generate revenue streams for the country and earn hard currency that can then be ploughed back into, among other things, renewables.

A further measure that can be taken to ensure consumer savings, he said, was to make supplying subsidized gas to factories conditional on meeting the efficiency benchmarks outlined above. If they do not, then they can be forced to pay the international price of gas instead.

Broader measures for energy efficiency at the national level also exist, he added, such as “specific energy consumption” – how many KWs are used per person or sector or household. The important thing here was national comparisons, as was the case with Germany. Efficiency savings are not as easy to measure as the power contribution of renewables, that is true, but they can be incorporated into renewables calculations, he said, citing Malaysia as an example. Building codes there made customs and tax exemptions for energy efficient ACs, lighting, refrigerators and solar-water heaters – provided a building enjoys a Green Building Certification, according to the reegle Clean Energy Info Portal.

Such spurs to efficiency are what make renewables in the housing sector commercially viable, he explained, a necessity if building codes stipulate that at least 20% of electricity used by a building is generated from renewable energy. This is a policy option already being looked into in Egypt. The expert insisted that strict oversight would not cost the taxpayer anything. Under Abdel Nasser civil servants were forced to put on plains clothes and go out into the marketplace to insure that the price control for bread and essential items (including cement) was in fact being implemented. This was part of their duties so that no extra pay was involved. In Germany you cannot even hire a construction crew to build a house without having them checked out through a rigorous set of regulations governing technical qualifications. But, at the end of the day, this comes at no extra cost to the homeowner. A more proactive approach used in Malaysia was to regularly showcase success stories and model programs for energy efficiency during awareness campaigns.

Almost in anticipation of the legal dispute with East Mediterranean Gas Company, the expert said that a combination of efficiency and renewables could do more than garner Egypt energy independence, but allow it to become a regional electricity hub exporting to the surrounding region. With will power, proper planning and active participation everything – in principle – can be accomplished.