Instead of scrambling to find funds and legislative support for the Desertec initiative, a handful of people gathered at the Dii conference in Cairo to explore the project’s overall environmental sustainability. The ambitious plan to develop solar and wind energy in North Africa’s deserts could replace harmful fossil fuel alternatives, but researchers are quick to dismiss the notion that renewable energy projects are completely innocent.
Dr. Anthony Patt from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis pointed out that scaled up Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plants that utilize wet-cooling technology could use up to 20 percent of North Africa’s already dwindling water supply. And “that is simply not possible,” he said.
Exploring sustainability in a quiet corner
Apanel led by Gus Schellekens, Director of Pricewater Cooper’s Sustainability and Climate Change Team, quietly got together to discuss whether or not it is sustainable to meet 15% of Europe’s electricity demand by 2050 with wind and solar power projects already underway in North African countries.
Dr. Patt said that water withdrawals in the region already amount to twice what the water cycle can reasonably handle. Instead of withdrawing a sustainable 50 billion cubic meters of water each year, North African countries are withdrawing 100 billion cubic meters. Some of that is being taken from the Nile River, but much of it is being drawn from fossil aquifers that will never be recovered.
Water uptake is maxed out
Given that water uptake has already been maxed out, CSP technologies (concentrated solar power) that rely on wet-cooling technology absolutely can’t be implemented, but dry cooling technologies can. These, according to Dr. Patt, only require 2% of the water available, which is less than the fossil fuel industry currently extracts.
Lettemieke Mulder, the community relations representative from First Solar, a world-renowned photovoltaic producer that has already installed 4GW of solar power – enough to run roughly 2.3 million homes – claims that her company has already bypassed the emissions of 2.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into our environment.
But that’s not the only reason to pursue PV technology, she says. “Photovoltaics are the better option since they do not require water for cleaning.”
MENA countries need to bond
Eng. Maher Aziz Bedrous, Counsellor for Environmental Management and Studies Sector for the Egyptian Electricity Holding Company admits that the region is deeply vulnerable to resource scarcity and recommends that MENA countries come to some kind of agreement about this vulnerability.
He estimates that MENA countries combined will need to spend $2.7 billion to mitigate the affects of climate change, and another $7 billion every year to adapt. Meanwhile, oil-producing countries, which produce 74% of the MENA region’s carbon emissions, will be difficult to persuade since their economics rely so heavily on fossil fuels.
Asked whether the Egyptian government is ready to implement renewables responsibly, both Mulder and Schellekens noted that this could be a question for the Desertec team, which could recommend the adoption of recognized international standards. Looking outside at Cairo’s general mayhem, we certainly hope so!
More news from the Dii Conference and Green Prophet:
Find Green Prophet at the 2nd Annual Dii Conference in Cairo
Green Prophet at Desertec Conference in Cairo
Water and the Middle East at a Glance (Infographic)