Lessons from the future

All waste is recycled. Cars are banned, with rapid-transit pods in their place. Wind towers, geothermal technology, and virtually every surface, collect energy. It sounds like science fiction but, writes Erik Jaques, this is the world's first zero-carbon city - and it's being built now

Just over two years ago, the inordinately wealthy government of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), confronted an awkward question. In a desert city that has dramatically grown from nothing since oil was discovered in its sands in 1958 to become a leading global energy exporter, how does it adapt to climate change and impending post-peak oil scenarios?

It is an obvious conundrum, yet the will of politicians worldwide to transpose grand renewable energy rhetoric into reality has so far fallen short. Sitting atop some 8% of the world’s proven oil reserves and controlling more than 85% of the UAE’s total output capacity, Abu Dhabi is not the most obvious candidate to take a lead in this field.

And yet, that is exactly what it did in 2006 with the unveiling of the Masdar Initiative – a multi-faceted, multi-billion dollar drive to develop and commercialise renewable-energy technology and catalyse sustainable development. Led by the aptly named Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of the government-owned Mubadala Development Company, it is future-proofing on the grandest of scales.

Its daunting, borderline fantastical remit includes the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) (a collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology), a myriad of muscular investment vehicles and a carbon management unit intent on scaling up sustainable technologies (particularly CO2 capture and storage). All of which will be based or headquartered in Masdar City, which is odds-on favourite to become the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste city.

With a £15B price tag, and inspirational master planning courtesy of British architectural deities Foster + Partners, the city aspires to be a clean-tech version of Silicon Valley, where 1,500 businesses and 50,000 dynamic denizens rub shoulders at the absolute cutting edge.

“Masdar has grown out of Abu Dhabi’s half century of energy leadership, and is a natural extension of the country’s contribution to global energy growth, development and security,” says Masdar CEO Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber who, at the tender age of 34, finds himself leading the largest government-supported clean-technology initiative in the world.

“To put it simply, Masdar makes sense. Abu Dhabi is one of the world’s largest producers of oil and gas, with sufficient reserves to last many generations, but it is taking bold steps to prepare for the world’s changing energy demands now. The time has come to stop talking and to take action.”

The Masdar Initiative is certainly not wasting any time in that respect. Masdar City broke ground last February (putting it far ahead of its closest rival, China’s Dongtan), and its first phase becomes reality this year when MIST admits its first students and a massive 750m by 750m photovoltaic power generation facility starts producing the power needed to complete six further phases running until 2015.

Other components of the initiative are also settling into their influential grooves.

A significant number of high-profile investments have been made, including one of the largest ever in solar technology, a £1.4B punt on photovoltaics (establishing Masdar PV, which will have plants in Germany and Abu Dhabi). And, when Shell backed out of London Array, the world’s largest offshore wind farm, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company stepped in to grab a 20% stake.

Elsewhere, Masdar’s Carbon Management Unit last spring launched a hugely ambitious project to develop a CO2 capture network for all industry activity in Abu Dhabi, which will prudently pump CO2 beneath its oilfields to boost crude production by 10%.

Then there’s Hydrogen Energy, a joint venture with BP Alternative Energy and Rio Tinto, to equip Masdar City with the world’s first industrial-scale hydrogen-fired power generation plant with carbon capture and storage technology.

There is little doubt, however, that the star of the show is Masdar City itself.

Foster + Partners have refracted a very learned knowledge of Arabic history through a sci-fi lens to envision a 6km2, high-density, walled city that will ultimately use 75% less electricity (every surface will collect energy) and less than half the amount of water (from a solar-powered seawater desalination plant) than the norm.

All waste will be recycled. Cars are banned, residents will instead enjoy the use of personal rapid-transit pods. Commuters from Abu Dhabi can travel by an electric light-rail system. Buildings will rise no higher than five storeys (eliminating the need for energy-draining lifts) and they will be positioned and imaginatively adorned with awnings to optimise shading.

Canals filled with the city’s grey water will run alongside narrow streets to help cool the air above, and countless green squares will heave with drought-resistant foliage.

Energy will come mostly from the solar technologies, although no expense will be spared to install the latest in renewable energy, including wind towers, geothermal technology and, outside its walls, wind farms harvesting the sea breeze.

Masdar City is devised to be uniquely adaptable for future energy technologies (indeed, a fifth of its energy supply has yet to be pinpointed for this very reason). It is, for example, sitting atop a raised platform to enable activities like pipework reconfiguration.

“This is the first opportunity for us as architects to take knowledge that we have of

sustainable building and take it another step forward into a city scale,” exclaims an excited Gerard Eveden, senior partner at Foster + Partners.

“For us, this is probably the most important project in the world at the moment because the knowledge that will come out of it nobody will be able to ignore. Architects and engineers cannot ignore it, unless we are going to continue to build dinosaurs.”

It isn’t all about mind-blowing technology, though. Eveden stresses that one of the most significant aspects of the city’s plan is basic common sense.

“Sustainability doesn’t just mean energy collection, it also means creating a place that is better for people where we’re looking at ways of giving people back more choice. It is the architect and engineer that in the past have determined that people won’t open the windows and that they will be air-conditioned. But we know for a few months of the year in Abu Dhabi it is very a pleasant climate, perfect for opening the window. It is that kind of thought process we want to reintroduce.”

While the master plan and investments may have garnered most attention Dr Al Jaber suggests that the soul of the entire enterprise is best typified by the private, non-profit, 100% independent MIST.

Intellectual capital is critical to the Masdar Initiative, and there are hopes MIST will eventually have an impact akin to the 13 Indian institutes of technology that have essentially been the backbone of all of India’s recent technological advances. To aspiring educational change-agents, MIST has proven a big draw.

With relatively little fanfare, it drew 400 student applications from around the world (including most US Ivy League institutions and Oxbridge) for 40 places, while 1,000 professors battled it out for just 28 faculty positions.

MIST clearly means business. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, chaired the first inaugural Board Of Trustees meeting in November, with attendees including numerous Emerati government and business heavyweights, as well as redoubtable names like Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College in London and former chairman and CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, Dr William A Wulf, former president of the US National Academy of Engineering and Dr Adnan Badran, president of Petra University and former prime minister of Jordan and deputy director general of UNESCO.

“Abu Dhabi has to diversify their economy to move from this comparative advantage to a competitive advantage,” summarises Dr Fred Moavenzadeh, director of the Technology Development Program at MIT.

So they have to come up with activities that are globally competitive, and that changes the ball game. That requires highly educated people, well trained people to form the type of organisations, companies, business that are necessary to promote these type of activities and develop them, so that is why they came to us.”

Unsurprisingly, for such a gargantuan project, the Masdar Initiative is not without its share of sceptics.

It has to be said that locating Masdar City close to the Middle East’s first ever Formula One racetrack (Mubadala even owns a 5% stake in Ferrari and sponsors its Formula One team), an airport set about to undergo a massive expansion and the world’s biggest aluminium smelter, is somewhat jarring.

What’s more, the WWF recently exposed the UAE as having the worst ecological footprint per capita. “Instead of building in deserts, we should be exploiting their rich energy potential,” argues Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Robin Webster.

“Abu Dhabi has the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emissions per head – its huge oil wealth has allowed for unsustainable lifestyles. The city should concentrate on cutting its own carbon footprint and tapping into the massive potential for renewable energy on its doorstep.”

But Peter Droege, a renewable urban design expert, author and chair of World Council for Renewable Energy (Asia Pacific) and Steering Group member of the Urban Climate Change Research Network (UCCRN), says criticism of that nature misses the point. “Any large-scale investment anywhere in the world today that does not pursue the basic principles that Masdar is pursuing, is already outdated.

“It is not matter of a good thing, or a green thing or a nice thing, it’s a matter of survivability. This has many dimensions. In the Middle East, obviously this has been informed by a very thorough understanding of what their reserves are and a thorough understanding of what their global position can be in a post-peak world.

“Obviously it is supported by a hydrocarbon economy, but so is the world. We are operating in a world that 95% depends on oil for any kind of transport. We’re part of the same world. Until we can shake those shackles, we’re going to have to live with pangs of hypocrisy.”

According to Andy Marris, CEO of Decarbon8, the company undertaking the carbon management and measurement for Masdar City, the Initiative has already disrupted the business-as-usual mindset.

“Masdar is such a high-profile job that every manufacturer in the UAE, which has been the Mecca of building for the past ten years and will continue to be for the next 20, wants to be associated with the project, especially as sustainability is becoming such a key issue these days. Not to be involved or to be turned down, could have serious ramifications on their business.”

Dr Al Jaber, for his part, is well aware of the naysayers, but is adamant the Masdar Initiative is representative of a serious, highly pragmatic paradigm shift.

“We have witnessed some remarkable developments in the UAE over the past 40 years, however the sheer scale and pace of this growth has not always allowed this development to be done sustainably. We are now entering a new era of growth where our aim is to achieve future growth that is truly sustainable.

“At Masdar, we understand that some of our projects will not succeed and we are prepared for this. However, what you have to do is put some real skin in the game to make renewable energy a success.”

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