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Five questions with Professor Hesham El-Askary

Prof. Hesham El-Askary

This week, we interviewed Professor Hesham El-Askary, Professor of Remote Earth Sensing and Earth Systems Science at Chapman University, and a speaker at last November’s Spotlight Seminar on Renewable Energy in Africa. Professor El-Askary spoke passionately about harnessing North Africa’s solar energy resources and GEO-CRADLE, a new project that coordinates earth observation activities in North Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans.

1) What are the key challenges in energy on the African continent at the moment?

Explosive population growth in Africa and the need and demand for energy are two of the key challenges in this area. Most nations on the African continent are still developing, which means they need access to cheap and plentiful energy. However, we must balance the imperative for rapid energy access against environmental impact.

As a climate scientist, I want to promote green energy and technologies so that our economies can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. The global rise in temperature has caused huge problems. Just this year, we have observed natural disasters such as the hurricanes that have hit the East coast of the US, and tremendous heat waves in Australia. As a result, scientists need to partner with the global community to accelerate investment in renewable energy.

A big issue is producing green energy and technologies in clean and safe ways to meet the demand for power in coming decades. North Africa boasts incredible solar energy resources and is one of the best places in the world for solar radiation. However, the region experiences a plethora of dust storms, which can block solar radiation. We must address this challenge if we want to achieve SDG 7’s aim of providing access to clean and affordable energy for all.

2) Last year, you were appointed as regional coordinator on GEO-CRADLE, a project funded with a €3 million grant from the European Union Horizon 2020. Could you please tell us about this?

GEO-CRADLE is a three-year project that coordinates and integrates state of the art earth observation activities in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans. We wanted to create a regional hub that allows people from different sectors to access earth observations. The project deals with four major areas: adapting to global climate change, food security, access to raw materials, and access to energy and the production of clean energy. Through our 23+ partners spread across 15 countries, we wanted to create a hub that provided access to satellite and ground observations, as well as modelling data. Our aim was to share this amongst communities on a broader scale, and in doing so, promote the use of science to address the four thematic areas. 

It was my honour to be selected as regional coordinator for North Africa and the Middle East. The whole management team was successful in reaching a range of stakeholders, decision-makers and governmental entities. We are now in the process of promoting the project in order to take it to the next level. Through the partnerships we have formed, we have addressed the role of earth observation in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, and reached out to large entities in Egypt.

Part of our proposal is to create a partnership agreement between the consortium and countries’ national statistical offices. GEO-CRADLE is already starting to leverage networks and facilitate collaboration between different entities, making use of earth observations to address some of the key challenges of our lifetime.

3) Could you please tell us about the Solar Energy Nowcasting SystEm, which is part of GEO-CRADLE?

One of the thematic areas of Geo-Cradle is access to solar energy. For that reason, we are trying to develop different products that can help accelerate solar production. We are developing technology that can be used to monitor usage and consumption of solar energy in real time, as we have data sets from a fifteen-year climatology.

The technology addresses the different factors that can affect the production of solar energy, which range from clouds to aerosols. The product is operational and relies on a wealth of information; we have worked with terabytes of data to develop the product. It also depends on complex climatology studied over the course of 15 years, and we use spatial resolutions ranging from 5 to 3 kilometres. Spectrally, the product is very rich in information and data, meaning that it can also be applied for different applications, such as health applications that aim to assess the impact of the sun on skin.

The Egyptian government is currently using the Solar Energy Nowcasting SystEm to facilitate the development of the country’s first solar atlas. Our hope is to export this technology to other African countries, using Egypt as a pilot study to demonstrate the project’s capabilities. Sudanese officials have already expressed interest in adopting the technology.

4) You believe that using renewable energy is the only way to address global climate change issues. Why is this?

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report, the average global temperature has risen by one degree Celsius. However, the international community has set a target of preventing global temperatures by rising an additional two degrees Celsius by the end of the century. An increase of 4 degrees Celsius would mean wiping out 50% of the human species. Eventually, our planet will become uninhabitable; we will see more dramatic melting of the polar areas, and more aggressive dust storms, hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding. We are now at a crossroads: we have observed a distinct correlation between the rise in temperature and increased greenhouse gas emissions. We need to act accordingly. 

Now is the time to take action – we must set a plan for achieving gradual independence from fossil fuels in order for our planet to adjust. This must be addressed at a very high level.

5) Egypt aspires to increase the share of renewable energy to 20% of its energy mix by 2022. Could you please tell us more about that?

The Egyptian government wants to move away from its previous reliance on fossil fuels. However, Egypt does need to use carbon-intensive energy resources to achieve its development objectives. The country is making excellent progress towards its objective of increasing the share of renewable energy to 20% of its energy mix and needs to maintain its progress.

Photo: Green Prophet, Kuraymat, 2011

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