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Egypt: Rooftops Empower the Poor

Cairo – In one of the poorest and most populous neighborhoods of Cairo, Hussein Soliman and his family live in a small apartment that is a model of clean energy living.

Cairo – In one of the poorest and most populous neighborhoods of Cairo, Hussein Soliman and his family live in a small apartment that is a model of clean energy living.

The two solar panels and bio-gas unit on the roof of Soliman’s building in Darb El-Ahmar provide hot water and cooking gas to his two-bedroom apartment, reducing his family’s carbon footprint and energy costs. The clean energy appliances, made mostly from recycled material, have reduced his household’s waste and have meant that “my gas and electricity bills are much less than before,” says Soliman. They shaved nearly 50 percent off the utility bills.

Soliman ventured into clean energy in 2008 when he joined Solar CITIES (Connecting Community Catalysts and Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Systems), a development initiative spearheaded by U.S. urban planner Thomas Culhane. The project leverages local experience and innovation to develop cheap and robust clean energy technologies adapted to the rigorous operating environment of Cairo’s poorest neighbourhoods.

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ in development and part of the problem is precisely that so-called ‘experts’ come in and try to promote products and designs that are inappropriate for the local community,” Culhane tells IPS.

Culhane and his German wife, Sybille, have brought on board as innovators the residents of the low-income neighborhoods in which they hope to make the greatest impact. Their designs for solar water heaters and bio-gas digesters have evolved through experimentation, group brainstorming sessions, and “jumping into dumpsters to find materials that might work.”

Using recycled materials, Culhane’s team was able to put together a solar water heating system for under 500 dollars. The system’s solar panels are built from scrap aluminum, glass, old copper pipes and styrofoam insulation. It uses two recycled 200-litre shampoo barrels as tanks, one for storing the water heated by the panels and the other as a backup water supply.

Solar CITIES has built 35 solar water heaters in Egypt since 2007. Most of the systems, including 30 units built with USAID funding, are installed on rooftops in underdeveloped areas where frequent power and water cuts cause commercial systems to break down. Stacked tanks and a float valve, similar to the type used in toilets, allow the water heaters to overcome the water pressure fluctuations that lead to failures.

“It took a lot of experimentation because we had to find placements for cold and hot water input and output that would balance the changing flow rate, opening the float valves at the right time,” Culhane says.

After a year of operation, Soliman says the only maintenance his homemade solar water heater has required is a twice-weekly washing of the panels to remove the dust buildup.

“The panels heat the water, which pipes carry down to the kitchen and shower,” he explains. “We only need electricity to heat water in the winter, and only if we’re using it after midnight.”

The bio-gas digester that Soliman assembled on his roof – one of eight built by the Solar CITIES project – converts organic garbage into cooking gas. Moldy bread and table scraps are soaked in water overnight, then poured into a 1,000-litre plastic tank to decompose. A pipe carries the gas to a burner in the kitchen, while a spigot drains the effluent, which Soliman sells as organic fertiliser to upscale garden shops.

“I can use any organic waste from our kitchen to create gas,” Soliman explains, while pouring a bucket of organic slurry into the tank’s intake pipe. “The digester provides one hour a day of gas in winter, and two hours in summer.”

The bio-gas unit’s capacity for processing organic waste has taken on added value since the Egyptian government’s decision last year to cull the country’s pig population. Rotting heaps of kitchen waste, previously fed to hogs, have created a health hazard.

“My garbage man kisses me because I have the cleanest garbage on the block,” Soliman boasts.

Moustafa Hussein, a career counselor for a local community development project, joined the Solar CITIES project in 2007 after a chance encounter with Culhane that sold him on the idea. The solar water heater he built on the roof of his apartment in Darb El-Ahmar provided hot water for his family until the dilapidated building collapsed three months ago.

His belief in the project unshaken, Hussein is now building another solar water heater, which he hopes to install on the roof of the temporary government housing where he now lives. He also wants to build a bio-gas unit.

“I’m planning to collect the organic waste from restaurants in the neighborhood to increase my gas output,” he says. “I’ll give the restaurants plastic bags and they can separate out the organics, and I’ll collect the bags at the end of each day.”

The biggest obstacle to any project in impoverished neighbourhoods is economics, says Hussein. Most area residents subsist on less than two dollars per day, and credit is difficult to obtain.

“It’s hard to convince people here to invest in clean energy,” says Hussein. “As a household why should they invest up to 1,000 Egyptian pounds (182 dollars) in bio-gas when it costs just six or seven for a butagas cylinder, which lasts two weeks and is much easier to handle?”

Due to Egypt’s heavily subsidised gas and electricity, it may take up to 15 years to recover the costs of a Solar CITIES solar water heater or bio-gas digester. The cost recovery time is expected to fall as the government proceeds with plans to phase out energy subsidies in the coming four to seven years.

Hussein says having people who are part of the community involved gives the Solar CITIES initiative more credibility. But the project’s success will ultimately depend on whether it can produce a cheap, durable and efficient model for the community.

“If the people see a good example, they will tell each other about it,” he says. “Whether it succeeds of fails, everyone will know the same day.”

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