10/04/2019

Egypt Is Building A Massive 1.8-Gigawatt Solar Park

7:05 minutes

Solar power is having a moment. And that’s certainly the case in Egypt, where work is underway to construct a 1.8-Gigawatt solar park so big that it will be visible from space. Although the North African nation has some of the best solar resources in the world, the $4 billion Benban Solar Park will be the country’s first utility-scale solar power plant. Once complete, the park will be one of the biggest solar installations in the world, featuring up to 7.2 million photovoltaic solar panels and potentially diverting two million tons of CO2 emissions per year. 

The Benban Solar Park signals an important development in Egypt’s push to increase the portion of its national electricity supply coming from solar power and is part of a larger, global trend of growth in utility-scale solar power capacity. 

Amy Nordrum, news editor at IEEE Spectrum, joins Ira to discuss the massive solar park, as well as a new discovery about the unexpected strength of animal silk, that red meat study you’ve probably heard about, and galactic filaments, the largest known structures in our universe, which scientists report observing for the first time this week.


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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Egypt is ramping up construction on its first utility-sized solar power plant. The 1.8 gigawatt plant will feature up to 7.2 million photovoltaic solar panels when it’s done. It comes with a $4.1 million price tag.

It’s predicted to produce enough energy to power up to a million homes. And it’s poised to be one of the world’s largest solar facilities. The solar park will be so big it will be visible from space. Here to talk about that as well as other short subjects in science is Amy Nordrum, news editor at the IEEE Spectrum.

AMY NORDRUM: Hi.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s good to have you, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: This is crazy, this solar plant.

AMY NORDRUM: It’s a massive project. It’s been under way for years now, and it’s finally just about to come online. I think about 80% of the solar panels and projects there are now complete. And it should be online later this year or early next year producing power for Egypt.

IRA FLATOW: And why Egypt in particular?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, Egypt years ago started investing in this project, because they were a fossil fuel based place. And they were running into a lot of blackouts because of fuel shortages. And they have this massive solar resource. I mean, they have more solar radiation than almost any other country in the world. But they hadn’t really invested in solar in the way that you might think.

So they wanted to diversify their electricity production. And they started this project. Most electricity-generating and transmission assets in Egypt are state owned. But they actually brought in a lot of private developers to help with this project, which probably will make it more successful in the end.

IRA FLATOW: So are they going to do the whole thing with the batteries and the panels? Or they just doing the first step?

AMY NORDRUM: Right now, it’s just the first step. This was an important step. One of the engineers I talked with said it’s done three main things for Egypt. It’s lowered the cost of PV panels in the country, it’s trained a huge workforce of people that worked on this project that didn’t previously know how to install these panels. And it’s also convinced people that solar power has a lot of potential there after they ran into some hiccups with some concentrated solar power plants before, which are a different type. But there’s no battery storage plan for the project yet. That might come later.

IRA FLATOW: I’ve heard stories over the years about all of North African countries– Morocco, Egypt– being the power supply for Europe by building cables that go through the Mediterranean.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, I mean, it could be a good idea. I will say there are some tricky parts about installing all these panels in the desert. They have to think about things like dust and sand blowing over the panels. And so they have this whole system in place for cleaning them with these large adapted tractors that have huge brushes and are going to drive by and brush the panels off. So you do have to figure out some things because of the location, but there’s a lot of potential there.

IRA FLATOW: More jobs for everybody. Your next story is about a study that challenges most of what we’ve been told about red meat consumption. It broke earlier in the week, and it’s had a lot of reaction, right?

AMY NORDRUM: Absolutely, a research group known as NutriRECS published actually five studies on Monday that really upended a lot of nutrition advice concerning red meat that consumers have heard in recent years. And there they looked at past evidence. So this was a systematic review of all the evidence studied today on the effects of red meat consumption on things like cardiovascular disease, and cancer, and total mortality.

And they applied a new criteria called GRADE. This is a system of evaluating the quality of evidence in previous studies. And through that system, they came to the conclusion and the recommendation that really most people don’t need to decrease their red meat consumption and can eat as much red meat as they like.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm, and that’s really upset some people who have been saying all this common knowledge for years.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, there’s many nutrition recommendations that suggest lowering your red meat consumption for health as well as other reasons. But this new method called GRADE is really supposed to look at the most rigorous evidence. And so it ended up throwing out a lot of observational trials, things like case studies that aren’t considered to be as strong of evidence. And the researchers who did the studies say that it’s trying to push nutrition science more the direction of randomized controlled trials, which are the highest quality evidence, but haven’t been done as much in the field so far.

IRA FLATOW: But you know, there’s been other opposition by environmentalists about eating red meat, not just about the nutritional value of it.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, that’s a very important point. This study only looked at the health effects. And certainly if you chose to eat less red meat for other reasons, such as environmental impacts of meat production, this recommendation doesn’t apply to those concerns. That’s still definitely a factor in a lot of people’s decisions.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. All right, next up a new study that reveals the unexpected strength of animals’ silk, animal silk. Wow.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. The silk produced by spiders and worms actually gets stronger and tougher as it is exposed to colder and colder temperatures. And this is really weird, because most fibers become more brittle and actually break when they’re at extremely cold temperatures. But researchers in the UK and China chilled silk samples down to as cold as negative 320 degrees Fahrenheit using liquid nitrogen and tested it for strength and stretchability and found that the colder it got, the stronger silk became.

IRA FLATOW: That’s crazy.

AMY NORDRUM: It’s really unexpected. They think it has to do with the composition of silk. But the spinning mechanism used to produce silk creates these really long chains of super thin nanofibrils, as they call them. So these are chains of molecules that make up a thread of silk. And as the temperatures drop, these threads harden forming a kind of maze that makes it difficult for fractures or breaks to get from one side to the other. And that ends up making silk stronger in the end.

IRA FLATOW: So but where are you going to find a use for something that’s strong at 300 degrees below freezing?

AMY NORDRUM: Let me tell you, they have some ideas. I mean, this is a group of biologists. It’ll be up to others to act on these. But some of the applications they’re suggesting is like, if you need something flexible and strong in a really cold environment, like Antarctica or even outer space– say you need to build a net or a sail that could withstand some of those really cold temperatures and remain strong and flexible, silk might be your go-to material.

IRA FLATOW: I’m thinking space elevator.

AMY NORDRUM: There you go. That’s an idea.

IRA FLATOW: You know how many years they were looking for something [INAUDIBLE]

AMY NORDRUM: It was silk. It was there all along.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to a different kind of thread, one of a more galactic nature, something called galactic filaments. Tell us about that.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, these are really fascinating to learn about this week. I hadn’t heard of them before. But they’re the largest structures in the universe. These are filaments or threads of hydrogen gas, you can think of them as, that stretch from galaxy to galaxy, and in fact, from clusters of galaxies to clusters of galaxies. They make up a thing called the cosmic web that astronomers have theorized and physicists have theorized existed since the 1990s.

But this week for the first time, researchers at the Reagan Institute in Japan published a study in Science in which they confirmed the existence of these filaments in this web. They made the first direct observations of these giant threads of gas and published it for the first time this week.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s good. Always waiting to find out more about what’s out there.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: All right, Amy. Thank you very much. Amy Nordrum, news editor at the IEEE Spectrum.

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About Danya AbdelHameid

Danya AbdelHameid is Science Friday’s fall 2019 narrative podcasting intern. She’s most interested in telling stories about the complex, messy ways that science interacts with culture, history, and society, but she’s really into glaciers and ice sheets, too.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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