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By Caitríona Palmer, IFC Communications

Just before sunrise in the Egyptian desert, private security guards inspect a caravan of cars, trucks, and buses loaded with workers crossing the checkpoint into the Benban Solar Park—a massive construction site soon to be the world’s largest solar installation.

As the dawn sky to the east stirs with hues of blue and orange, guards board the buses and methodically check under seats, gently shaking workers awake to verify their identities. They are looking for any signs of underage workers who may have been hired to work illegally for the dozens of local subcontractors employed at the park.

Preventing juvenile labor is just one of the many challenges of managing a complex construction site that spans 36 square kilometers of desert and includes 32 individual solar projects operated by 45 different companies.

“You’d think that developing a solar park in the middle of the desert would pose limited impacts on the environment and surrounding communities,” says Raymi Beltran, an IFC senior environmental specialist who has spent the past four years working on the project. “But because there are so many projects being built simultaneously by different companies and contractors, there are significant logistical, environmental, labor, and health and safety risks.”

When construction ends later this year, Benban will be capable of producing 1,650 megawatts of electricity—enough to power hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. The solar park is expected to avoid 2 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year, the equivalent of taking about 400,000 cars off the road. IFC and a consortium of other lenders committed $653 million to support the project. But ramping up Egypt’s renewable energy—and coordinating among companies and subcontractors employing a total of 9,000 construction workers—brought unique challenges.

Private security guards inspect cars, trucks, and buses loaded with workers entering the Benban Solar Park.

Following the Highest Standards

With no recycling or wastewater treatment facilities available, where would workers and contractors dispose of their waste? How would the poorly conditioned two-lane roads leading into the mega project handle a daily influx of thousands of workers, half of them from local villages? How to enforce road safety standards with 200 heavy vehicles operating on the site every day?

IFC’s Environmental and Social team worked hand-in-hand with Benban’s developers and Egypt’s government to ensure that the solar park’s multiple projects adhered to international labor, environmental, and health and safety standards.

About 9,000 workers currently participate in the construction of the Benban Solar Park.

To support this work, IFC and other lenders engaged a facility management company—Hassan Allam Asset and Property Services—to coordinate among Benban’s many contractors and provide basic services such as waste management. IFC’s Environmental and Social Performance Standards, which require good international practices in areas ranging from community engagement to occupational health and safety measures, provided a road map that guided the overall approach to managing risks.

“Rather than each company figuring out how to source water, dispose of waste water and house their workers, they decided to centralize all those functions so that we could reach optimal solutions on behalf of all those contractors,” says Hassan Allam, the management company’s chief executive officer.

Because several sites are being built at the same time by different companies, logistical and safety risks are significant, says IFC senior environmental specialist Raymi Beltran.

A legal agreement with an Egyptian government agency allowed the company to manage and enforce environmental and social standards. Contractors and companies who disregarded the rules had their financing withheld from their respective lenders. In addition, the management company created community advisory panels with representatives from nearby villages who meet monthly to air their concerns and share input from their communities.

Planning for the Long Term

IFC’s approach in Benban grew out of decades of experience with large-scale infrastructure projects that required careful environmental and social planning before construction even began. It draws upon lessons from projects in Africa, Asia, and South America, engaging local contractors and communities from the outset.  Coordinating among multiple projects and lenders proved invaluable in mitigating risks.

Before construction began at Benban, villagers mostly found employment in agriculture, including in the mango and date palm groves scattered nearby. As employment from construction draws down, the plan is to help villagers improve their livelihoods in agriculture. Since 2017, IFC’s environmental and social experts have worked with sponsors to develop a community investment strategy. This includes training to hone villagers’ farming skills, adopt better marketing strategies for their crops, and have better access local supply chains. 

“In our work with other large infrastructure and energy projects, we’ve learned that getting it right on the front end and investing in capacity-building on environmental, social, and health and safety matters pay off,” Beltran says. “It is also important that Benban is brought to a close in a responsible way. Conversations with local communities and the developer’s association are already underway to better understand what they will need going forward.”

New Challenges, New Solutions

Though much learning has come from previous infrastructure projects, building a renewable energy project on the scale of Benban, in a remote location, and with very little local infrastructure, required developers to implement new solutions.

“There are, by our estimates, 6.5 million solar panels that will be installed on this project,” Allam says. “The panels arrive at the site packed in cartons on wooden pallets. That’s an awful lot of carton, cardboard, wood, and plastic wrap to dispose of.”

The management company decided to build its own solid waste management facility and set up a system to control wastewater disposal. The park’s recycling facility has already recycled 20,000 tons of mixed waste that might otherwise have been dumped in the desert. Even the leftovers from workers’ lunches are composted onsite. Wastewater from the multiple project sites is trucked to an authorized wastewater treatment facility in the city of Aswan, 40 kilometers away.

The heightened risk of car accidents due to heavy traffic and erratic driving on the roads leading to and from the site was addressed by implementing a mandatory road safety training for Benban’s workers. Vehicles are inspected upon entering the site to ensure they are roadworthy.  In brightly lit classrooms in a designated “safety zone,” workers in yellow and orange neon vests receive driver education instruction.

A team of six IFC experts guided the sponsors and facility management company from the beginning of the project to manage the solar park’s environmental, social, and health and safety risks.

“Because of its scale, Benban required a new approach,” Beltran says. “Helping to protect the environment and welfare of workers while increasing Egypt’s renewable energy has made it worthwhile.”

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Published in March 2019