Energy from the desert
Several years before beginning this book, I found myself standing on a rooftop looking out over the mud-brick oasis of Siwa, in the Western Desert of Egypt (Figure 3.1). Despite being only October, the sun beat down with an unending ferocity that had caused the town’s population to take to their homes for shelter. The Egyptian desert is hot and the traditional houses in this part of the world are built accordingly, with thick mud-brick walls and small deep-set windows – cool in summer, warm in the chilly desert nights. The roof of the particular building I was on had a more modern addition, in the form of a small parabolic mirror, which I believe was designed to heat water. The combination of traditional architecture with solar water heating technology made the building – a hotel – one of the most comfortable houses in the oasis, far more appealing than the handful of modern apartment blocks which had sprung up around the edge of the town, complete with noisy air-conditioners. Beyond the houses were the date palm plantations, and beyond that, a vast sea of yellow and white that made up the desert. To the west were the endless dunes that stretched to Morocco and vast plains of gravel and fossilised seashells that spoke of a time when the whole area was submerged beneath the sea. I was struck by the thought that the union of the Berbers’ age-old customs with new technology offered a solution to the development of the oasis, which is just beginning to show the scars of traffic, tourism and pollution. In the future, roof-top installations could provide hot water and electricity for the houses, while free-standing PV or wind turbines could pump water for the date palms or provide fuel for electric vehicles. Covering just a tiny portion of the desert outside the oasis with PV or concentrating solar would power the town and the nearby military bases and bring jobs to the community. It might also return to the people of Siwa something of the independence that living in the desert must once have offered. At the time of my visit I was not yet thinking of the potential for the desert to provide electricity for the big cities of Alexandria and Marsa Matruh on the Mediterranean coast, and perhaps Siwa is too far away, but the possibilities are there, a small example of what could be achieved under the right circumstances.