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Egyptian solar set to expand beyond the massive 1.8 GW Benban PV project

In this edition of the Weekend Read, we turn to Egypt. The gigawatt-scale Benban project showcases the North African country’s solar potential.
15.04.24 | Source: pv magazine

Egypt was one of the first African countries to develop large scale renewable energy projects and had 555 MW of wind power generation capacity by 2012. That was the result of donor support, however, rather than a push by the Egyptian government to tap its plentiful renewable energy resources. The world’s three biggest combined cycle gas-fired power plants were completed by Siemens, in 2018, for Egyptian Electricity Holding Company (EEHC). They have a combined capacity of 14.4 GW, underlining Cairo’s commitment to natural gas.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has driven up gas prices and prompted European markets to replace Russian fuel with alternative sources. Egypt shipped 80% of its liquefied natural gas to Europe last year. The resulting revenue, combined with falling PV component costs has changed the landscape of Egyptian energy economics.

The latest figures published by Egypt’s New and Renewable Energy Authority (NREA) indicate the country’s power generation mix is currently 80% thermal, 12% wind, 6% hydro, and 2% solar. The government aims to achieve 42% renewables in the mix, including 22% solar, by 2030. It has estimated that this will require 31 GW of solar, up from just 1.77 GW at present, making for an incredibly ambitious target. A goal of 60% renewables by 2040 has also been set.

NREA figures show that at the end of 2023 there was 1.5 GW of solar capacity at Benban and 26 MW at Kom Ombo, with both located near Aswan, plus 50 MW at the Belectric-CCC joint venture’s Zafarana project on the Red Sea coast. There was also 97 MW of rooftop and 30 MW of standalone solar capacity and the remaining 102 MW of solar arrays included commercial and industrial (C&I) installations and other smaller arrays.

Benban project

Utility-scale PV development has, thus far, clustered around Aswan in the south of the country, where solar resources are strongest and there is plenty of land for development.

The biggest chunk of Egyptian solar capacity is provided by the Benban project, which lies 50 km from Aswan and is one of the world’s biggest PV sites. Official figures on its capacity vary from 1.4 GW up to 1.8 GW, with the confusion apparently centering on the scope for expansion of some individual elements.

It is actually a complex of 41 separate projects covering 37 km², with operators including Voltalia, Infinity Solar, SP Energy, Acciona Energía, Horus Solar Energy, and Scatec Solar. It cost a total of $4 billion to develop, some of which was provided by the World Bank’s International Finance Corp. (IFC), the African Development Bank (AfDB), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), with most phases completed in 2018-19.

Feed-in tariffs (FITs) give the operators guaranteed prices for 25 years and are the only private FITs in the country, a spokesperson for Voltalia told pv magazine. Sources within the country suggest that 6,000 management and maintenance jobs have been created at Benban, which will provide a pool of skilled workers and expertise that could be tapped on for future projects.

Voltalia developed its 32 MW RA project at Benban using Suntech 330 W panels, with all the power generated sold under a 25-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with Egyptian Electricity Transmission Co. (EETC) at a rate of $0.084/kWh under Egypt’s feed-in tariff program. The incentives are actually paid for in Egyptian pounds, however.

Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power expects to complete its 200 MW Kom Ombo plant, just 20 km from Benban, in April 2024. Some of the financing for the $182 million project was provided by the EBRD, the OPEC Fund for International Development, and the AfDB.