Time for an alternative

Scientists and experts have agreed that the petroleum era will sooner or later come to an end and nations will be struggling to meet their oil and gas needs, which will possibly open the door for a third world war. Egypt Oil and Gas Newspaper discussed with Dr. Salah El-Haggar, Professor of Energy and Environment at the American University in Cairo, the option of searching for alternative energies in order to secure the generations to come.
Can biogas be the equivalent for natural gas in Egypt?

Yes and no; biogas is a mixture of methane gas and carbon dioxide, methane gas is almost equivalent to natural gas, carbon dioxide is an inert gas, it has no calorific value. Therefore, carbon dioxide will decrease the calorific value of biogas. But, if we filter biogas by removing out carbon dioxide and some of the other trace elements, then biogas will be clean. Unfortunately, the technology used to clean it is not economically promoted in Egypt yet, although we have more than 743 biogas units distributed all over the country. Right now, the number of biogas units operating is 5-10 only.

The reason behind it is that promoting biogas in Egypt started in the 1980s as a biogas unit from animal manure, which is always considered a valuable waste for farmers used in land farming and fertilization. Thus, the concept of biogas should be expanded to include any organic waste like the one in “Al-Gabal Al-Asfar” that produces around one million cubic meters of biogas out of human waste. This plan is not operated with full capacity yet, but it is a promising expansion for biogas in Egypt that I consider to be “the future for rural development.”

Who are the active participants in this project? Is it more of an NGO, the government or just volunteers?
In the 80s it was the government’s role – financed by USAID – but recently NGOs are trying to promote biogas. Unfortunately, up till now people do not understand biogas technology as a method to recycle organic waste. For example, the rice straws can be converted to biogas by mixing them with sewage instead of burning them and producing black clouds. It is a very simple technology for rural development.

Do you think it is due to lack of awareness or a problem of government strategy?
First, it is the problem of how biogas is promoted; do you want to take farmer’s valuable animal manure and put it in a small box underneath the earth to produce biogas? That is the question. Secondly, it is because of the cheap cost of butane gas bottles; they are handy and a very simple household energy source. Thus, why look for alternatives?
China and France – which I consider the best models for biogas – take invaluable organic waste and use it to produce biogas used in lighting and cooking. Our government should focus on biogas as an alternative method to recycle un-recyclable waste in rural communities, which is one of the major problems we have.

Looking for alternatives, will Egypt find alternative energy methods, such as solar and wind energy?
Renewable energies require some specific conditions. Concerning wind energy, the wind speed has to be about six meters per second, which is not available everywhere. In Za’farana, we do have enough wind to generate this energy, however, we do not have wind maps to study wind velocity and reach the highest one to generate energy.
For solar energy, we have a huge amount of solar energy in the country, but the cost of converting solar energy with this low energy intensity is very expensive. The alternative would be solar water heaters, but we cannot use them in Cairo, as roof-tops are very limited, while solar water heaters necessitate large spaces.
In Egypt, we have around 11-12 solar water heater companies, none of them generate income. We need to develop an incentive mechanism, such as installing and maintaining them for free or with a 20% reduction-rate, in order to encourage people to install them and pay this huge sum of money at the beginning compared to cheap electric heaters.

Why hasn’t the government started depleting oil consumption? Why is it not planning for the future?
The government has already established an authority called “Renewable Energy Authority”, responsible not only for promoting the concept of renewable energy but also to implement pilot studies all over the country. They have hundreds of engineers, workers and scientists but, the question is do they have an action plan to promote renewable energy apart from energy demand in Egypt? Do they have a follow-up plan and some kind of link with the community? I have no answer. This authority has to develop not only an action plan, but also an implementation and follow-up plans.

How difficult is it for a non-governmental entity to start its own project on alternative energy?
There are a lot of NGOs in this sector; the problem is that they do not have enough financial or human resources. Also, they do not have the power to conduct an action plan.

What about the private sector?
The private sector is another story; they will never attempt to promote something beyond their activity. If you try to go into the private sector in the area of energy conservation, they have many opportunities. We estimated energy conservation in the industrial sector to be almost 10% of their energy consumption. We have an office called “Energy Conservation” in the Ministry of Electricity, if they give more attention to raising the importance of energy conservation, we will save a huge amount of energy for future expansions.

Do you think the government should give more facilities to the private sector in return for their community participation?
Either that, or put it as a condition; from the start, if you want to run a business, you have to have 1% of your income dedicated to community participation. I believe that community participation is important not only for energy conservation, but also for development activities.

Where does Egypt stand in terms of energy conservation?
I think we have excellent demonstration projects, the question is: are these demonstration projects expanded into other industries? No, even if it is an excellent, documented and measured project with profit. One example is in the textile industry in Mansoura, which has implemented energy conservation for about four years with a three-month pay-back period, which is an excellent investment. However, no one tried to promote this concept to other companies. In my opinion, energy conservation and environmental protection are not in the government’s plan yet. The main method behind promoting the concepts of renewable energy and energy conservation is to start from the end users. If consumers understand the benefits and know the techniques they can implement, they will immediately follow up on the implementation process.

How can we deal with pollution generated from the oil and gas sector to save the environment?
Starting from drilling; we have what is called drilling mud and cuttings. Unfortunately, until today, they are either dumped in the desert or sea. You can recycle the oil and water base mud as an alternative fuel and raw material for cement industry. It is not an expensive process.
Besides, there is another disastrous emission, which comes from gas stations and storage tanks. There is a huge amount of vapor in fuel tanks, when we load cars or storage tanks, whether with gasoline or diesel, this vapor goes into the surrounding environment and is inhaled by people, reaching their kidneys in 15 minutes and may cause kidney failure on the long-run. It costs nothing to prevent this vapor; we can add a co-exile hole beside the first one; one to load fuel and the other to take in vapor back to the truck. The reason behind not applying this technique in gas stations is that they are owned by private sector companies. I always believed that gas stations should be under EGPC (Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation) control in order to get clear technical specifications to run these stations.
Another type of pollution is sludge; the easiest way to deal with it is to use it to pave roads (asphalt). Petroleum companies claim they don’t have the techniques to deal with inorganic mud yet, but we already have one company in Alexandria dealing with inorganic hazard wastes.

How do you see the future of energy in Egypt?
Actually this is a very tough vision now, as we cannot estimate the exact amount of oil and gas reserves in Egypt. Renewable energy is the only safe energy for the future, if it is efficiently extracted and produced. The second part is nuclear energy, but it is still unclear.
On the other hand, the future of energy worldwide is hydrogen energy. If we are able to utilize hydrogen as a future fuel, this will be a dream. It will produce no carbon-dioxide, no sulfur oxide, and no emissions; however its storage and cost are viable problems. But, in 10 years, the cost will decrease. There is a large hydrogen energy project in Istanbul, but Egypt did not initiate a link with it until now. I think hydrogen is the dream for the future of energy in Egypt.
Dr. Salah El Haggar
Professor of Energy and Environment at the American University in Cairo, his written works include, People and pollution, Cultural construction and social action in Egypt and Sustainable industrial design and waste management.


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