Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Solar Powered Public Baths in Historic Cairo

Solar Powered Public Baths and

Early Co-Generation in Cairo: 
Using otherwise "waste(d) heat" to heat the famous Arabian public baths
(Excerpted from Chapter 3 of T.H. Culhane's Thesis: "Getting into Hot Water")

 ”What watery glory it all was: To be steamed, scrubbed, rinsed and scented according to medieval Cairos public-bathhouse ritual was to be cleansed like nowhere else on earth...There are still in Cairo half a dozen traditional hammams  that have been busy washing bodies for centuries...”
Feeney, J.,The Joys of the Bath, Aramco World 2004, online at

Solar CITIES co-founder T.H. Culhane sits discusses solar hot water options with Umm Omar and her brother, who are from the original Islamic Wahi (Oases) groups who recycled waste paper for co-generation of cooking heat and public bath heating before turning the trade over to the Coptic Zabaleen. Umm Omar owns one of the last surviving public baths in historic Cairo and would like to revive it as an environmentally friendly health spa for the community if she can secure funding for a large enough solar hot water system.  Solar CITIES provided her with a small 200 liter demonstration system, but it needs to be ten times that size to make the business viable.

It is not that there is no tradition of creating designs in the built environment of Cairo to maximize the efficiency of material values to create human use values. In the particular case of hot water demand there is a time honored tradition, going back a century, in which the trash recycling community gathered  waste paper from all over the city to distribute as fuel. Since Cairo, like many arid land cities, lacks  wood resources, the recycling of wood products predates the urban recycling revolutions appearing in the west.

The trash recyclers would sort and deliver waste paper and wood scraps to the Fava bean
merchants, who built their ovens next to the public baths.

As legendary educational reformer and environmental advocate, Dr. Laila Iskander, who has devoted more than a quarter century to championing the rights of Cairo's Zabaleen told UCLA's visiting Urban Planning group in 2006,  "Recycling has a long history in Egypt.  Nothing went to waste. The ubiquitous Egyptian food, ful (made of fava beans) requires low heat, but traditionally there was no firewood and no oil, so cooks burned wastepaper for low grade heat, then used the waste heat to heat the water for public baths. Profit from recycling drove the market. "

The bean merchants and the public bath owners and the trash recyclers developed a unique symbiosis for co-generation.  They  built extensive networks of copper pipes and heat exchangers that carried the waste heat from the daily bean cooking into elevated 2000 liter cisterns that supplied the baths with hot water.

 The site of the bean cookery (the door in the stone wall)  and the remains of the heat exchanger (the round wall)  that once powered the baths. The domes are the lighted roofs of the public bath, with colored glass inlays.

The dome from the inside, showing the marvelous traditional way to introduce natural lighting and to recycle glass bottles.
The 2000 liter cistern that once supplied the bath with all its hot water, heated by the bean cookery.  To fill this with hot water today would require 10 Solar CITIES solar hot water systems. Since the materials to build each system costs about 500 dollars, we estimate would need a grant of merely $ 5000 dollars to provide the daily running-cost free pre-heating that could help revive the bath. Additional costs would be incurred for construction, installation, hiring labor, running pipes and improving insulation. We would also want to install an instant on-demand condensing bio-gas backup system for cloudy winter days.   With $10,000 we estimate we could pretty much cover everything.
The view from the water tank to the domes of the bath, showing the distance we would need to run pipes.

Half a century ago, inner city Cairo still had over 300 of these bean-cooking/public bath installations. In the time of the Mamluks it was said that a resident could visit a different bath every day.  It is ironic to anybody who has had to suffer through the infamous ”black cloud” month that has poisoned the air
of Cairo since the late 1990s that it was an environmental clean air ordinance that led to the demise
of the waste-paper-bean-cooking-public bath infrastructure. Waste paper burning was considered to
produce too much smoke for the inner city and the large bean cookeries were shut down.

As "natural" gas canisters became available the bean sellers dispersed, setting up a multitude of decentralized cookeries.  The giant heat exchangers that served the baths fell into disrepair. Meanwhile, another move toward  decentralization, with the provision of white goods as solutions for water heating, drove people who  could afford it to abandon the practice of attending the public baths and to begin bathing at home.

This wasn’t inevitable however, as public baths and private baths were not always perceived as substitute goods. Doris Behrens-Aboseif writes in ”Islamic Architecture in Cairo: An Introduction” (Behrens-Abouseif 1989) that during the Ottoman era

”Provision of private houses with hammams did not, however, diminish the role that public baths had played in Egypt since Roman times and whose functions were far wider than hygiene. Their primary aspect was social, particularly the women’s baths, which were comparable to clubs. Women in particular enjoyed the opportunities the hammams offered to gather, away from their houses, and their only opportunity to go out without their husbands. Marriages were often arranged in the hammams where the matchmakers went to look for potential brides... Ibn al-Hajj criticized women’s visits to hammams, saying they merely led women to show off their clothes and jewelry, adding that such female gatherings were harmful. On the other hand, in the tale of Abu Sir and Abu Qir in the Arabian Nights, is the comment ”Your city is not perfect unless it has a hammam”. Ibn Khaldun wrote that hammams are a mark of highly civilized cities, since luxury reveals wealth and prosperity.” (p. 42). 

At the time the baths also were believed to be able to cure diseases and served medical functions and were considered ”lucrative businesses.” It is unclear whether the loss of the public baths has more to do with them competing with home bathing, which, given the statistics we’ve revealed in our study, seems unlikely, or whether they shut down because of rising fuel costs, a drop in the standard of living of the potential clients and a resurgence of fundamentalism that revived Ibn al-Hajj’s fears of the baths being immoral. We do know that at least one of the remaining public baths in Darb Al Ahmar was shut down recently because of alleged homosexual behavior (one of the tragedies of intolerance) in an environment no longer considered "family friendly". 

Nonetheless, the combination of falling demand and rising fuel costs for heating large quantities of water led the baths themselves to fall into disrepair. Today there are only two baths remaining open in the Darb Al Ahmar area; one of them is a block down in the Abu Hureyba district on the street where I live.

 Aga Khan Security Guard and Darb Al Ahmar resident, Karam, who is also a certified plumber and has helped Solar CITIES build its systems, introduced us to the public bath owners, who are friends of his, saying "we must bring solar hot water to our neighborhood and use it to revive the bath tradition that I enjoyed as a child!

Umm Omar, the owner of the Darb Al Ahmar Street public bath,  told me her family are Wahis, the original Muslim trash recyclers from the oases who started gathering waste paper for heating beans and water over a century ago, and then contracted with the Zabaleen to provide the paper when the Copts migrated to the city several generations later. Rather than helping these enterprising families continue their ancient traditions by helping them implement ways to provide clean inexpensive heat, the municipality in recent years simply prohibited them from engaging in their cogeneration activities, citing ’environmental standards’. Today, mostly using gas bottles (though I have observed a fuel oil burner in the bath as well), they can afford to heat only one tub.

 (Picture depicts the current dangerous, unhealthy and expensive way (oil and gas, sometimes scrap materials)  that the public bath heats the small quantities of water they can now afford to  use for their diminished clientele. Solar CITIES wants to raise funds to replace this system with a safe, clean and inflation resistant solar hot water system, built by the community)

They only open for a few hours a day. They say they cannot cover their operating costs and may be forced to close. Residents surrounding the bath talk about their fond memories of being able to take long hot baths; mothers talk about being able to wash a large group of children all at once, rather than slaving away for hours preparing small quantities of bath water.  But "environmental laws" dis-articulated from policies to integrate new environmental technologies, prevent the re-emergence of the old co-generation traditions.


The contradiction here is that state provision of a centralized amenity once created economies of scale and business synergies that created greater human use values than ”freeing individuals to self-provision”.The Wahi Zabaleen-Bean-cooker-Bath system was an Industrial Ecology system that predated the recent Industrial Ecology Movement by a century. It demanded coordination from different stakeholder groups, public and private investment, and participation by civil society. And yet it provided human use values to a greater proportion of the population than is seen today.

 The once beautiful, joyously painted baths have fallen into disrepair because they cannot afford to meet running costs. Solar energy could help solve this problem and revive this glorious ancient tradition.

”Unlike the grassroots environmentalism movements of the West, Egypt’s environmental initiative originated with the state, following some prodding from the international community,” writes Salwa Sharawi Gomaa.  This explains why an attempt to re-introduce industrial ecology concepts may actually rely on the international community now getting involved in a refocus of Egyptian environmentalism so that it reflects a sustainable development ethic in sync with the needs of the burgeoning urban poor, rather than an attempt to mirror the bourgeois environmentalism of the Western well-to-do.

In her analysis of the interactions between the Egyptian government, Environmental Non-Government Organizations (ENGOs), the Green Party and foreign donors, and the development of Egyptian Environmental Policy,  Gomaa lists the top environmental concerns in her country: Air  pollution, caused in large part by an absence of comprehensive zoning laws, Water Pollution, caused by
oil discharge, agricultural chemical runoff, and large volumes of untreated waste water, and raw solid waste.

She suggests that in reality agricultural drainage water and other forms of waste water ”is a
problem that can easily be turned into an advantage if the water is properly treated and utilized instead
of discharged”, and illustrates how many of Egypt’s environmental problems are a result of sloppy
thinking, bad policy and lack of implementation rather than hopeless consequences of rising population. But one area where she is in agreement with more recent urban planners, who adress population, like Abdallah Abdel Aziz Attia, professor of architecture and urban planning at Ain Shams University, a strong advocate of decentralization, is in the need to return to the 1979 Master Plan.

”Finally, Egypt is faced with the problem of land degradation due to urban encroachment. The volume of rural-urban migration in Egypt is currently at a disturbing annual growth rate of 3 percent. Given Egypt’s limited resources, such a high level of urbanization poses an environmental problem of enormous proportions, which is reflected in the huge number of shantytowns that are rising in major cities and in the development of slum areas within the towns and cities themselves. Notwithstanding these concerns, the environment has only recently developed into a policy issue encompassing legislative measures and a complex and diverse network of political actitivities both within and outside the government.” 
(preface from Environmental policy making in Egypt By  Salwa Sharawi Gomaa University Press of
Florida, 1997.)

Unfortunately, current environmental laws, rather than encouraging out of the box thinking, have actually, in this particular case, inhibited the synergies between the activities of the two communities
that once provided hot water options to the area. Particularly damaging have been regulations limiting
co-generation and dooming the public baths.

 The alley behind the bath where the beans used to be cooked using recycled waste paper.

But there is a way that these environmental laws can be used to revive the baths.  If Cairo is serious about its clean air legislation, and if Egypt wants to participate in combatting climate change (in fact they have set up a climate change ministry to do so) then one way to create a win-win would be to use Clean Development funds and Carbon Trading monies and redirection of utility and energy subsidies to do as Tunisia has done and launch a massive solar hot water initiative.  The emblem for this could be the revived Public Baths.  Since co-generation through waste paper burning (once the cheapest way to provide heated water) is unfeasible, another form of waste heat -- or rather "wasted heat" could be used -- the heat of the sun.

Since Cairo has one of the highest rates of solar insolation in the world, the running costs of the public bath would be almost nil.  On the few cold cloudy winter days that Cairo experiences, the heat could be supplemented by the burning of biogas (produced from city garbage, as they do in Pune and in Kerala state in India), which would be carbon neutral (and in fact preferable to the current practice of letting it rot in the streets, turning into the more potent greenhouse gas, methane).  The Zabaleen could once again supply the bath with the organic waste used to generate the biogas, completing the historic circle. And the gathering of the waste to feed the biodigestor would create a financial incentive for keeping the streets clean.

Thomas Taha Rassam Culhane demonstrates the spot, in front of the old 2000 liter water tank, where the solar hot water panels could be mounted.

Ironically, as if Allah had intended it (yes, we believe He did!) , the open space in front of the water tank that is ideal for placing the solar panels turns out to face both the Abu Hurayba mosque AND DUE SOUTH.  Nothing could be more perfect -- the area behind the bath, built up over a mountain of garbage, is perfectly situated for solar energy.

With minimal investment capital (estimated to be at around $10,000 U.S.) a new industrial ecology system could be created that could improve the environment and the health and hygiene of the community, as well as create a place of dignified relaxation and socialization to bring people together as in days of old.

This textile business owner, Ali, who lives and runs his factory in the building directly above the baths, has fond memories of his mother taking him to wash there when he was a child.  He would like to see the baths reopened, and allowed us to install a demonstration Solar CITIES hot water system on his factory roof so that community members could see for themselves how simple it is to build solar hot water heaters and how reliable they are, and lead discussions of how solar energy could be used to revive the baths.

The Public Bath in blue, and the business owners factory/home above it. 
Karam, the factory owner and an employee of the bath discuss where the solar panels could be placed, and security issues to prevent them from being stolen or broken. One of the issues affecting infrastructure investments is whether or not vandalism will be a problem or not.  One of the Solar CITIES systems in Manshiyet Nasser is inoperable because children living in a taller building threw stones at the system and broke the glass. Education and public awareness must also accompany the solar effort.
Solar CITIES associate Mahmoud Dardir of the Abu Nimrus Environmental Science Center,  who grew up in and still has family in Darb Al Ahmar, comes to an agreement with Karam and the factory owner, Ali, that they will build a demonstration system on the roof over the bath.
Once the agreement has been made, production work begins at the Aga Khan carpentry workshop where vocational trainer and Solar CITIES innovator Mustafa Hussein has invented a labor saving device for bending the aluminum sheets used as heat absorbers in the solar panel.  T.H. and Ayman Fathy, the brother of Solar CITIES green-collar trainer Hanna Fathy, help bend the sheets.

 Hanna joins in the fun.

All in the family:  Ayman, who drives a recycling truck as his day job, offers to use his truck after hours to work with Hanna to transport the iron solar tank stands that were welded in the Zabaleen community , and the aluminum, machined in Darb Al Ahmar, to the baths.  In this way the Zabaleen continue to offer their historic service to Darb Al Ahmar, but now are introducing solar energy into their portfolio of environmental industrial ecology solutions.

 The system starts to take shape on the roof.

Zabaleen Recycling School Teachers and Solar CITIES engineers Adham, Nabil and Moussa work after hours in Darb Al Ahmar to paint, tie and rivet the aluminum sheets onto the copper pipes that were welded in the Zabaleen community.

Zabaleen Solar Technician Mousa works late into the night building the system on the factory owner's roof in time for the visit of National Public Radio producers Liane Hansen, Davar Ardalan and Ned Wharton, who did a program on Solar CITIES work.
Mousa adds plumbing to his skillset as he connects the system to the bubble-wrapped recycled plastic water tanks that are one of Solar CITIES innovations for keeping the systems low cost.
Hanna checks for leaks before the sun comes up and makes the water to hot to work with. 

The Roh El Shabab NGO Solar CITIES crew, Adham, Hanna, Nabil, Abu Nob and Moussa, stand next to Darb Al Ahmar resident 'Am Hussein, on whose roof they simultaneously finished a solar hot water system, running back and forth in shifts from the bath to Am Husseins roof, so that NPR will have two satisfied families  to visit when they come to do their story.
An exhausted but satisfied Hanna Fathy, the Solar CITIES coordinator, inventor, and green-collar jobs trainer for this Roh El Shabab (Spirt of Youth) program, prepares to make the long walk home across the Al Azhar Park and the City of the Dead, hoping that international exposure will help raise funds to enable the team to build enough collectors to revive Cairo's historic public bath and the tradition of the Coptic Christian Zabaleen  and the Muslim Wahis of Darb Al Ahmar working together to find co-generation and cooperative solutions to solving environmental problems.

1 comment:

Wilson Peter said...

Hello T.H. Culhane,
Usually I am not regular to read article on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very pressured me to check out and do it! Your writing taste has been surprised me. Thank you, quite nice article.

Wilson Peter
matchmaker Chicago Illinois