Future

Egypt's Scorched Earth Energy Policy Leaves Clean Power Behind

Despite strong opposition, Egypt has just approved the contruction of coal-fired energy plants that are still years away from operation. Meanwhile, it's nowhere on harnassing wind and solar energy.

Kumayrat, one of Egypt's few solar plants.
Kumayrat, one of Egypt's few solar plants.
Isabel Esterman

CAIRO — Egypt has recently announced plans to build the country's first two coal-fired power plants, following a controversial April decision to allow the fuel to be used for industry and electricity generation. Meanwhile, despite years of preparation, Egypt is entirely devoid of on-grid wind or solar power stations.

The government signed a deal with the Abu Dhabi-based Al-Nowais company in September to build a coal power plant in South Sinai's Oyoun Moussa area. And in November, Orascom Construction, the mammoth cement and engineering firm owned by Egypt's richest man, Nassef Sawiris, announced it had formed a partnership with Abu Dhabi's government-owned International Petroleum Investment Co. to construct a coal-fired power plant near Hamrawein Port on the Red Sea coast.

It will be years before the coal plants are actually constructed. Orascom recently announced that it has been granted 18 months of access to its proposed project site in order to conduct technical studies, and construction will take longer still. But by local standards, the projects have proceeded at a rapid clip, moving from illegal in April to signed memorandums of understanding in September.

"It's happening much quicker than we thought, which is sad," says Sarah Refaat, Arab world coordinator for the climate change action group 350.org.

By contrast, state support for wind and solar energy projects has so far yielded little progress. As of 2008, the government had officially aimed to source 20% of electricity from renewable energy by the year 2020. The Aswan Dam, which began generating electricity in 1967, can supply around 2,100 megawatts of electricity. When built, it supplied roughly half of Egypt's power, but that percentage is shrinking as overall demand for electricity grows. By 2020, the government estimates the dam will supply roughly 8% of Egypt's electricity needs.

Yet to be harnassed

The country has one wind energy trial project, a 250-megawatt wind farm in Zaafarana on the Red Sea coast, says Marwa Mostafa, a senior planning engineer at state energy regulator EgyptERA. "The project started in 2009, but because of problems with sovereign guarantees, and the political situation, it is still not operational," she says.

A solar power station in Kom Ombo is still in "very early stages," Mostafa says. Like the wind farm, it has suffered from a lack of sovereign guarantees — a promise from the Central Bank or Ministry of Finance to settle debts if the primary borrower defaults.

A third project, a 140-megawatt hybrid solar and natural gas plant at Kuraymat in Upper Egypt, should be generating 20 megawatts of power from solar energy. But because of technical problems, it's not currently functioning, Mostafa says.

The country has seen a tiny upsurge in small-scale off-grid energy projects, ranging from solar panels on the roofs of government buildings to billboards to water pumps installed by private companies. Private industrial firms have also launched projects to power their factories with wind and municipal waste.

Because of their small scale and the decentralized nature of such projects, it's difficult to track figures. But those that do exist are not particularly encouraging. Citing data from EgyptERA, pollster Baseera revealed that solar energy production dropped from 479 million kilowatt hours in the 2011-12 fiscal year to 247 kilowatt hours in 2012-13, a 48% decline.

Mostafa, along with many others in government, pins her hopes on a feed-in tariff, which was approved Sept. 16. The tariff sets rates at which the government promises to buy electricity from private wind and solar energy producers. By encouraging smaller-scale installations and private investments, the government hopes to avoid the problems that have bogged down existing projects.

Wind turbines in Egypt — Photo: francmaleckar

Through this program, the government aims to secure deals with private companies to generate 2,000 megawatts of wind power and 2,300 megawatts of solar power within two years.

Although industry experts welcomed the passage of a feed-in tariff, others are skeptical. The scheme provides a framework for producers to sell power to the grid, but it doesn't include measures to stimulate consumer demand, such as requiring the industry to use a set percentage of renewable energy.

Others criticize the purchase prices. "Some items are lower than the government prices for selling electricity," says Galal Osman, head of the Egyptian Wind Energy Association. By contrast, petroleum-based electricity is heavily subsidized.

The legislation for the feed-in tariff is also incomplete. So far, only the prices for renewable energy have been set. Egypt's state council has approved a set of regulations for renewable projects, but they are not yet law, Mostafa says. "It could come in days or in weeks," she says.

Standards for how EgyptERA will function as a regulator are also awaiting final approval. And EgyptERA is still drafting a power purchase agreement contract, which will set terms for how project owners sell electricity to distribution companies.

Likewise, technical requirements for connecting such projects to the grid are still in the drafting phase. Mostafa says EgyptERA is hoping to finish by the end of the year. "I think things are progressing," she says.

A faster track

Coal projects, too, are facing incomplete legislation, but this doesn't appear to have slowed deals for coal power.

The Cabinet's decision to allow coal use for industry and power generation came despite objections from environmentalists, civil society groups, tourism industry representatives and then-Environment Minister Laila Iskandar. A report prepared by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, under Iskandar's supervision, recommended against permitting coal, citing negative effects on public health, the environment and the economy. It also noted that relying on coal, which Egypt has to import, would degrade the country's long-term energy security.

Proponents of the decision prevailed, arguing that coal was a necessary short-term solution to overcome an energy crisis that was crippling industry and leaving homes and businesses in the dark. When the Cabinet ruled to allow coal, it said the fuel's use would be tightly regulated under a new environmental law, in line with World Health Organization and European Union standards for the transport, storage and burning of coal.

Almost eight months later, these laws still have not been published.

Even current Environment Minister Khaled Fahmy, who is in charge of overseeing the development of the legislation, appears uncertain about its status. Speaking at an energy conference on Nov. 21, Fahmy emphasized his support for the energy industry.

Solar plant in Kuraymat, Egypt — Photo: Green Prophet

"We can't protect the environment without a strong energy sector and a strong economy," he said. "The Ministry of Environment does not stand against industry and a strong economy. On the contrary, a strong economy will build a strong country."

Fahmy said that industrial growth should be accompanied by safety standards. "We have to abide by regulations for safe use of coal in the cement industry. They are all efforts to diversify the sources of energy. We must make sure of the impact upon implementation of the project," he said.

But Fahmy was vague about how the government would do so, concluding his speech with a question: "What are the regulations to guarantee safety standards of the industry? So that we can ensure industrial development along safe standards?"

Despite Fahmy's uncertainty about what Egypt's environmental laws should look like, cement factories have already begun trials with coal, including at a Suez Cement plant in the Cairo suburbs.

In a Nov. 19 press release, Orascom said its coal-fired power plant would use "advanced clean-coal technology that complies with EU standards for emission control." The company did not respond to a request for further information about what measures it planned to put in place to mitigate the project's environmental impact.

"They keep talking about regulations and applying European standards. But nobody really knows what that means," says 350.org's Refaat. She also worries that even if legislation is produced, weak enforcement could render it meaningless.

This haste to bring coal in before regulations can be established has prompted fears among environmentalists that industrialists and their government allies are rushing to launch coal projects, while the president and his cabinet, in the absence of a parliament, can essentially rule by decree.

Steps such as the feed-in tariff, though still incomplete, are generally viewed as progress toward increasing green energy in Egypt. The rapid advance of coal projects has shown what can be accomplished with powerful backers, even without legislation.

But without patrons in high places, renewable energy projects may face the same fate as Egypt's current crop of inoperative, endlessly stalled wind and solar plants.

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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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