In an ideal scenario, Egypt would rely on coal to meet 25 percent of its energy needs by 2030, an energy official said. That figure could rise to “not less than 30 percent” if the country fails to meet its renewable energy target.
Relying on coal for 30 percent of Egypt’s energy needs would put it in line with current figures for energy use around the globe, said Maher Aziz Bedrous, a board member of the Middle Delta Electricity company. This will mark a major change for Egypt, which currently relies on oil and natural gas for 96 percent of its energy.
Egypt’s Cabinet agreed in April 2014 to allow coal to be imported for use in electricity generation and cement publication.
The government now anticipates that coal imports will reach 30 million tons per year.
Executive regulations governing how coal can be transported, stored and burned were passed into law earlier this month.
The decision to allow coal imports was hugely controversial, facing opposition from civil society as well as then-Environment Minister Laila Iskandar. In April 2014, shortly before the Cabinet ruled on coal, a study produced by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) strongly recommended against allowing the cement industry to use coal for energy generation, citing negative effects on the economy, public health and the environment.
Since then, officials have changed their tune, a trend exemplified by a government-endorsed conference this week called Egypt Coal, which promoted itself with the tagline “the safety using of coal as an alternative energy and its role in supporting the Egyptian economy.”
The conference’s opening speech was given by current environment minister Khaled Fahmy, who described the shift to coal as “an inevitable decision” given Egypt’s energy deficit and aspirations for development.
Fahmy and other officials emphasized that Egypt has adopted strict regulations to control how coal is used from the moment it enters Egyptian waters up until the resulting waste is disposed.
Speakers emphasized that Egypt’s new rules are in line with European Union standards — although one presenter, Agustin Bonilla of Spanish energy firm García-Munté, did note that as a political union of independent countries, the European Union does not actually have unified standards for the use of the fuel.
Throughout the two-day conference, a range of government officials and experts from the private sector emphasized the need to change coal’s image. Industry, government and the media should work together to help the public view as progressive and environmentally sound rather than polluting and backwards, speaker after speaker emphasized.
“There’s a perception that [coal plants] are the worst type of plants, but in actual fact when you look at the new technologies, emissions are relatively comparable to gas plants, though not as efficient,” said Mark Silverton, of consultancy firm Mott MacDonald.
“In 1850s, during the industrial revolution, coal was a pollutant. In the 20th century, the technology improved and developed greatly,” Bedrous said.
“People who say coal is polluting do not know about the new technologies,” said Ahmed Ibrahim, from South Valley Cement Co.
There was much talk about new carbon-capture technologies that allow coal-fired plants “near zero emissions.” This enthusiasm was tempered somewhat by Shadia al-Shishiny, a member of the EEAA committee tasked with developing laws to regulate the use of coal in Egypt. “We can’t call them zero or close to zero, but amounts will be within the law,” she said.
Much of the argument for coal rested on global figures. Even countries like Germany, which enjoys a reputation as an eco-frienly country due to its promotion of renewable energies, is expanding its use of coal, noted Bedrous.
Overall, the use of coal was presented as an economic imperative. Unlike Egypt, countries that are discussing reducing coal use “have the luxury of alternatives,” said Ihab Mehawed, Orascom Construction’s general manager for Egypt.
“Today, if I have a bakery and don’t accept coal, should I let people be hungry and die, or should I accept coal?” asked former Petroleum Minister Osama Kamal. “We don’t have the luxury of choice.”