Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 October - 3 November 2004
Issue No. 714
Features
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A technological bonanza?

A new Egyptian discovery in the field of renewable energy promises to provide cheap electricity and thousands of jobs. But, as Gihan Shahine finds out, nobody seems to care

Click to view caption
Before and after: the Egyptian Electric Pedal in the making; converting the energy of traffic flow into electric power

Traffic is typically heavy on Heliopolis's Josef Tito Street in Al-Nozha Al-Gadida. None of the 50,000 motorists who daily wade through the traffic jams on that thoroughfare, however, realise that, by driving over that particular street, they are actually generating cheap, green electricity for an office building belonging to Petrojet (an oil company affiliated to the Ministry of Petroleum). Nor does anyone notice that underneath the street is a new Egyptian technology, named the Egyptian Electric Pedal (EEP), which coverts the energy of traffic flow into electric power.

The Think Tank Team (3T), a leading consulting company in the field of developing business ideas, took the initiative to establish the world's first-ever electric pedal on Josef Tito Street three years ago, in cooperation with Tomouh, a non-governmental organisation working in the field of development. Former Cairo Governor Abdel-Rehim Shehata welcomed the initiative and provided all the licences and facilities needed for the excavation work involved, and after prolonged effort, the EEP team managed to sign a contract with the manager of Petrojet, who promised to buy all the electricity the pedal would produce. The EEP dream ultimately became a reality when the first pilot project was opened on 10 October under the auspices of the Ministry of Petroleum.

Engineer Ihab Abdel-Karim, director of 3T and founder of Tomouh, says the EEP is "a purely-Egyptian international breakthrough in the field of renewable energy which, for the first time ever, turns the disadvantage of traffic congestion into a huge advantage for the country." Installing a pedal on a 100- kilometre-long road with a traffic density of 5,000-7,000 vehicles per day, for instance, would generate enough cheap clean energy to supply around 5,000 households and create 250 sustainable job opportunities, according to Abdel-Karim. If implemented on a macro- level, the EEP team says Egypt should install 30,000 pedals on roads and highways nationwide, which could reduce national oil consumption by 20 per cent ($900 million). EEP feasibility studies also indicate that a broad-scale application of the EEP would create hundreds of small and medium-sized enterprises in the form of labour-intensive small decentralised power plants, generating from 250,000 to 500,000 job opportunities in a number of industrial fields.

"There is effectively a consensus among experts that jobs are basically created through small and medium-sized enterprises," Abdel- Karim said. "Our main goal is to provide electricity for public utilities, which represent 20 per cent of Egypt's total electric consumption."

Abdel-Karim argues that the electricity bill debts of public institutions and utilities reached LE9,3 billion in 2003, while many of Egypt's highways remain unlighted in order to save the high cost of electricity. Meanwhile, he insists, "only 20 electric pedals would make the 200-kilometre long Cairo- Alexandria roadway bathe in light, and create thousands of jobs."

The initial technical concept for the EEP was the brainchild of a simple fellah (peasant). The 3T team bought the idea, researched and developed it, hired experts to conduct economic feasibility studies and established the first pilot project. The EEP's "ambitious plan" was first presented during the 1st Arab Ideas Market (AIM2002) conference at the Cairo Marriott and "received the blessing and support of the government". It was launched under the joint patronage of former Minister of Youth Dr Alieddin Helal; Minister of Petroleum Engineer Sameh Fahmi, and former Cairo Governor Abdel-Rehim Shehata.

3T is the main financer of the EEP pilot project, which to date has spent a total of $332,000 on design and manufacturing. 3T also owns the EEP Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), which are registered both locally and internationally at the Scientific Research Academy (SRA) in Egypt (IPR no. 181.2.2003) and the Switzerland-based World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO).

"We, at 3T, believe in the power of ideas," Abdel-Karim told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Even the simplest people may have brilliant ideas. That's why we open our doors to everyone with creative thinking." Whereas the National Research Centre has largely failed to turn any of the estimated 20,000 patents it has registered into feasible projects, Abdel-Karim boasts that "3T struggles to turn those simple ideas into small-scale projects, through research and development."

However, it was never smooth sailing for Abdel-Karim. "It was a difficult delivery," Abdel-Karim said of the birth of the first pedal. "But the baby is born at last."

The metaphor is apt. Abdel-Karim has lost many a long sleepless night worrying over research, design and licensing, how to conduct major roadworks without wreaking traffic havoc and, more importantly, how to obtain vital financing.

"Our major constraint was, and remains, the attitude of the community as a whole, and decision makers in particular, towards the project," Abdel-Karim grumbled. "Nobody has been prepared to provide the least support to allow the initiative to see the light, despite its potential impact on the economy." Even when the project was complete, Abdel-Karim added, "none of the 26 ministers who were invited to attend the opening showed up."

"We have already accomplished 95 per cent of the work with the completion of the pilot project," Abdel-Karim went on. "All we need at the moment is for experts, policy-makers, venture capitalists and investors to assess the initiative and expand it for the benefit of the country." EEP studies say an estimated $5.8 million will be needed over the next two years for further, more advanced, research and development (R&D) to commercialise the initiative on the global level. "Nobody, however, seems to care or listen," Abdel-Karim maintained.

Which should not come as a surprise. The UN Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) shows how knowledge deficits have led to the development of a weak system of scientific research and development in the Arab world. And Egypt is no exception. According to the report, Egyptian investment in research and development (R&D) is less than one-seventh of the world average.

Azmi Mustafa, a consultant at the Social Fund for Development (SFD), insists the fund is "interested in the [EEP] project", but argues that "it is not the SFD's responsibility to finance projects in their initial stages of research." Abdel-Karim, however, countered that the "fund does have a budget to finance patented projects and research needed for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)."

"The SFD chairman formerly promised to support the EEP in its initial stages, but that never actually happened," he added.

Although the pilot has now been completed, Mustafa says "the fund will still have to wait for the initiative to be tested and assessed."

"If the project proves economically and technically viable in practice, we promise to copy it in 26 governorates," Mustafa told the Weekly. "But right now, we cannot risk granting millions of pounds to SMEs that may not achieve their promised results."

The question remains, however, as to why the Ministry of Electricity is content to sit the game out as a spectator. Though she expressed enthusiasm for the EEP concept, Engineer Layla Hakim, deputy minister of electricity, told the Weekly that the ministry had "to wait and see". She explained that out of concern to preserve their intellectual property rights, the EEP team had refused to provide details about the technical concept of the pedal.

"But if the project proves viable, the ministry will be ready to expand it," Hakim noted. "The EEP project is very creative and it would be great to apply it on the Cairo- Alexandria road."

Minister of Transport Essam Sharaf was equally enthusiastic. Sharaf met with the EEP team on 12 October and after listening to a presentation on the project, he declared the "idea was very promising and serious". He promised to implement more EEP pilots to electrify unlit highways and far-flung villages. However, the question remains why not a single serious step has so far been taken in that direction.

Engineers at Petrojet told the Weekly that it is still premature to assess the project before all the wires have been connected to the pedal for a month. The National Research Centre (NRC), meanwhile, had initially assigned a committee to assess the project last June. The committee produced a report saying the EEP idea was "promising", but that the 3T team did not provide enough technical details for the committee to assess its viability.

Abdel-Karim, however, told the Weekly that the NRC committee refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), which would have allowed them to access all the technical details they needed. "Besides," he complained, "the committee was underqualified, and did not include any specialists in traffic management, civil or electric engineering."

In the view of one expert, however, there is no doubt. Hatem Mahran, professor of traffic management at Ain Shams University, has decreed the project "technically viable."

"It's a brilliant idea to turn Egypt's burgeoning traffic congestion into a huge asset," Mahran maintained. Mahran was among the team who conducted viability studies on the EEP for 3T. According to Mahran, the EEP "is not likely to slow or affect the traffic flow on roads and highways and is vehicle- friendly". Mahran said a mechanism has also been developed to ensure that the EEP does not get clogged by dust and to make maintenance easier should any problems occur. Small control rooms will be set up for EEP monitoring and maintenance, and this will also help the government to assess traffic density and speed on roads.

"One advantage of the pedal is that it is standardised, so any small investor with a capital of around LE200,000 could invest in the project, and the turnover would cover his capital in no more than two years," said Abdel- Karim. On the regional and global levels, Abdel-Karim says, "the EEP technology promises to save billions of dollars by reducing the consumption of oil and natural gas, beside generating millions of jobs annually."

In the period between 1950 and 1990, annual world electric power production and consumption rose from slightly less than 1 trillion kilowatt/hours (kw/h) to more than 11.5 trillion kw/h. Largely as a result of growth in the region's dominant economies, electricity consumption in the Middle East is expected to grow at an annual rate of 3.4 per cent. According to the International Energy Council, the international electricity market volume is expected to reach $889,200 billion by the year 2020 and, accordingly, investment in power supply is expected to reach $10,000 billion worldwide over the coming 30 years.

Meanwhile, the world has 7.6 million kilometres of motorways and an estimated 480 million vehicles. Consumption of oil is expected to rise by between 5.3 and 12 per cent annually due to the constant growth in traffic. The Middle East depends heavily on petroleum to fuel its electricity generation. In 1999, oil-fired generation accounted for 35 per cent of all electricity produced and natural gas for 41 per cent. That level of dependency is expected to continue in the future.

"Oil-price forecasts are alarming, not only for the developed world, but also for developing countries," Abdel-Karim said. "Studies speculate that the world will have to depend on renewable resources when oil prices reach $55 per barrel, especially since those resources have proved more environmentally- friendly, as they help reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide."

Meanwhile, international figures reveal unemployment has burgeoned into a worldwide epidemic that has stumped experts everywhere. Statistics from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) indicate that 160 million people who could be working aren't. And 750 million are underemployed, in insecure jobs producing far less than they could. The future is no more hopeful. At least half a billion jobs must be created worldwide in the next 10 years to provide new job- seekers with work.

The AHDR reveals the Arab world suffers the highest rates of unemployment in the world. Open unemployment in the Arab region was estimated to be 12 million in 1995, or around 15 per cent of the labour force. In the light of present trends, this figure is expected to rise to 25 million by 2010. Unsurprisingly, Egypt is no exception to this rule. Over half a million people reach employable age each year in this country, and the economy is growing too slowly to provide them with work.

It therefore seems wrong that a deficit in R&D funds should be allowed to impede the development of a technology that may ultimately save natural resources, relieve the financial burdens on government budgets and create millions of sustainable jobs.

"This project needs the support of policy makers," Abdel-Karim said, referring to President Hosni Mubarak: "I'm sure he is the only one who would care."

Otherwise, Abdel-Karim says, he will have to sell the EEP IPR to a foreign investor. "But I still hope my country will take the lead in this new discovery."

If the Egyptian Electric Pedal is to keep its first 'E', somebody will have to act fast.

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