Abu Dhabi's Blueprint for an Innovative Eco-City

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 4/08/2008 01:08:00 AM
The clip above is a promo for the emirate of Abu Dhabi's $22B foray into creating an innovative city called Masdar. It is supposed to set new standards in green living by featuring, among other things, a hydrogen power plant (to demonstrate clean power from Abu Dhabi's still-abundant fossil fuels), acres of solar panels, a desalinization plant running on solar power, magnetic trains for transportation (cars are not welcome), and 100% waste recycling. In other words, it's everything Abu Dhabi isn't right now in terms of green credentials--the World Wildlife Fund claims Abu Dhabi's citizens have the largest carbon footprint in the world.

So, what will it be? A folly of a showpiece, or the future in the design of green cities in an increasingly urbanized world? I sure do hope it is the latter, though I could be wrong. After all, $22B is chump change to Abu Dhabi, whose sovereign wealth fund is rumoured to have $875B in store. If this project falls flat on its face, it's just a drop in the bucket for these folks. Nevertheless, it is an ambitious project with the famous architect Norman Foster overlooking the proceedings. If the emir builds it, will they come? Here is a snippet from the TIME article:

What's happening in Abu Dhabi could be very exciting for the rest of us, too — and very surprising. The emirate is the world's fifth largest exporter of oil and sixth largest producer of natural gas, making it immensely rich, with per-capita gdp of $63,000, compared with $45,000 in the U.S. and U.K. With oil at around $93 per barrel, business is better than ever. So the notion of this fossil-fuel colossus supporting alternative energy might seem a bit like a heroin dealer trying to sell aspirin. But the Masdar Initiative is much more than a fig leaf to cover Abu Dhabi's contributions to climate change. Through investments in clean-technology companies, a sustainability research center, major green power developments, and Foster's city, Masdar represents a dramatically new direction for Middle Eastern energy. Fossil fuels won't last forever, and the need to cut greenhouse-gas emissions could force a quicker transition away from petroleum. Middle Eastern nations that want to remain viable in the next century can't rely entirely on hydrocarbons. With Masdar, Abu Dhabi may be pointing the way to the long-term prosperity of the Middle East.

"People are excited about this," says Maria Carvalho, an analyst at the London-based environmental research firm New Carbon Finance. "Nowhere else in the Middle East has there been such a commitment toward clean energy." Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, Masdar's intense, 35-year-old CEO, has even bolder ambitions, telling TIME: "We will position Abu Dhabi as the hub of future energy."

It's easy to dismiss these grandiose visions as mere rhetoric. After all, the U.A.E. currently gets none of its energy from renewable sources, and the World Wildlife Fund has sized up its citizens with the biggest carbon footprint in the world. (The government disputes that calculation.) But Masdar has something that green dreams elsewhere in the world tend to lack — vast amounts of money, and a far-sighted government willing to invest it in projects that may take decades to pay off. Launched in early 2006, Masdar was quickly able to take advantage of hundreds of millions in government funding. But that was just seed money. Last month, at the emirate's inaugural World Future Energy Summit — a sustainability conference that attracted some 4,000 officials, energy experts and businesspeople from around the world — Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan announced that the government would pour an additional $15 billion into Masdar. That sheer financial tonnage puts Abu Dhabi far above its Persian Gulf neighbors on any green ranking, and positions it as a global player. "They are putting real money on the table to get this done," says Nicholas Parker, chairman of the Cleantech Network, which tracks sustainability investments. "This is how you can tell they're serious."

Masdar won't say exactly how the crown prince's check will be spent, but the program doesn't lack for range. The company has already invested $250 million in clean-tech companies from around the world, and expects to launch a second and third fund in the near future. Another arm of the company will play the growing carbon market, brokering investments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions under the U.N.'s Clean Development Mechanism. Larger projects are in the works at home as well. At the Future Energy Summit, Masdar officials announced a deal with British Petroleum and Rio Tinto for the emirate to build one of the world's first commercial hydrogen power plants, a 500-MW operation slated to cost at least $2 billion. The plant will tap Abu Dhabi's abundant natural gas, transforming it into hydrogen and carbon dioxide, with the hydrogen used for electricity and the CO2 captured, keeping it out of the atmosphere. The result is clean power from fossil fuels — a Masdar priority — and shows that Abu Dhabi's half-century of experience with hydrocarbons could also lend it powerful expertise when it comes to renewables. "Abu Dhabi is ideally suited to develop this project because of the experience it has with fossil fuels," says Ron Heyselaar, who runs the hydrogen program for Masdar. "It's a match made in heaven."

One of the best hopes for alternative power in Abu Dhabi — and throughout much of the sun-baked Middle East — is large-scale solar energy, and here too, Masdar is preparing investments. Masdar City will be mostly solar-powered using traditional rooftop photovoltaic panels, but the company also plans to build a 100-MW concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in the nearby town of Madinat Zayed. CSP is solar with a difference: instead of transforming sunlight directly into electricity, CSP uses vast arrays of parabolic mirrors to collect and focus the sun's heat, which is then converted to power. It's ideal for hot, sunny desert conditions, and it's scalable — meaning that given enough space, CSP plants could potentially supply significant chunks of a country's electricity supply, not the negligible quantities that renewables mostly contribute today. Algeria already has a 150-MW CSP plant planned for 2012, with grand plans of exporting up to 6 gigawatts (GW) of solar power to southern Europe by 2020. Abu Dhabi's CSP plans are initially more modest than those of its larger North African competitor, with its first plant set for 2010, but Masdar's greater funding and international support make it the better long-term bet. "The region is rich in fossil fuels for the time being," says Klaus Toepfer, the former head of the United Nations Environment Programme. "But this region will be rich in sun for all time — and there could be a new boom here if these technologies are developed."