The ancient Egyptians developed the first means for using solar thermal energy by designing their buildings in architecturally appropriate ways.
Today, thousands of years later, the conscious use of renewable energy is more important than ever. That’s why the Egyptian SEKEM Initiative has installed a number of solar panels on roofs, in fields, and even in the desert, to harness solar energy for agriculture and other development goals.
In 2007, SEKEM began to seriously develop alternative sources of energy: various photovoltaic systems, wind turbines, hybrid solar dryers and Scheffler mirrors were installed and tested in agricultural and industrial production. SEKEM eventually decided to focus on solar heating and photovoltaic energy production and has begun to integrate such technologies holistically in all fields of activity: education, research, agriculture and the different business areas. Recently, the company has put into operation the largest solar-powered water pump in Egypt, developed and installed with Austrian partners.
Solar energy has the potential to power fuel-intensive agriculture in Egypt’s heartland
In the oasis Wahat El Bahareyya in western Egypt, the lush green fields and date groves of the SEKEM Farm are surrounded by dry desert landscape. The arable land must be kept irrigated at all times throughout the entire year using electric pumps to transport and distribute the water. Since the end of May, a number of photovoltaic panels glisten in the sun at Wahat, generating 60 kWp power to drive a 37 kW water pump that irrigates date palms over an area of 60 feddans (about 25 ha).
The tremendous demand for agricultural irrigation in a country that consists of more than 95% of desert consumes enormous amounts of fuel. “While PV systems carry a high investment with them and are profitable under present conditions only after 5 to ten years, they promise a drastic reduction of fossil fuels and bring other knock-on effects in terms of sustainability,” Maximilian Abouleish-Boes, manager of the Department of Sustainable Development in SEKEM, explains.
Creating a transition to renewable energies doesn’t just involve creating the technology; it also involves building technical expertise
In order to create awareness about and promote the implementation of renewable energy, the Wahat installation has been opened to the students and researchers of SEKEM’s Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development, the first non-profit university in the Arab region that is dedicated solely to furthering sustainability. The young researchers can put their theoretical knowledge into practice here.
With a similar intention, the SEKEM Vocational Training Centre (VTC) has launched a cooperation with the Austrian partner company SEKEM Energy to create a welding workshop specifically for solar engineers and mechanics. Birgit Birnstingl, the Managing Director of SEKEM Energy, explains the idea behind it: “From the specialist knowledge that the trainees receive, not only SEKEM but the entire country will benefit in terms of the spreading of the know-how of building, managing, and maintaining solar power installations – a know-how barely available at the moment. We expect this to significantly boost the spread of renewable energy in the country.” In the near future, the centre also aims to start production of solar-powered water heaters for domestic use.
Another solar demonstration plant has been erected directly on the roofs of the Heliopolis University. This plant is dedicated to demonstration and experimentation and provides electricity to parts of the high school building. Students and partners from other institutions all over the region are also invited to use it for research. The issue of renewable energy generation is also an integral part of the curriculum of the Engineering Faculty at the university.
Solar energy in powering agriculture in Egypt
In addition to creating awareness and providing an education valuable to tackling Egypt’s developmental needs, SEKEM also invests in research and innovation: “Later this year, we will install semi-transparent photovoltaic modules in two new locations”, Maximilian Abouleish-Boes adds. “These innovative modules made of glass can absorb solar energy while still allowing the ground on which they are erected to be used for secondary agricultural purposes, for instance in the cultivation of less demanding crops. On the SEKEM farm in Wahat, the initiative has also started erecting a greenhouse with the same materials that can generate energy and still allow for the cultivation of crops within.
SEKEM’s various activities in alternative energy generation have already resulted in an annual reduction of its overall fossil fuel use of up to 30 % (in 2014). SEKEM is planning to further increase their share and continue to reduce fossil fuel consumption in all areas of agricultural production, where feasible.
The integration of solar energy in all sectors of agricultural, social and business development at the SEKEM Initiative shall lay the groundwork for a pioneering push for more holistic and sustainable development in the country. By relying on cooperation with global partners in Europe, the Arab world and elsewhere, SEKEM aims to replicate its pioneering role in agricultural in renewable energy generation thereby helping to spread sustainable fuel use in the country.
The SEKEM-Group of companies is a part of the SEKEM Initiative founded in 1977 by Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish to strengthen sustainable development in Egypt by producing, processing, and marketing organic and bio-dynamic foodstuffs, textiles, and phyto-pharmaceuticals in Egypt, the Arab World, and on international markets. SEKEM has been widely praised as an “Egyptian organic pioneer” and has received the 2003 Right Livelihood Award (“Alternative Nobel Prize”) as a “Business Model for the 21st Century.”Christine Arlt is a Media and Communications Specialist with SEKEM in its Cairo office.