Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City: How the UAE’s investment in renewable energy resulted in a city of the future


By: Hyacinth Mascarenhas

Back in 2007, the government of Abu Dhabi – an emirate that controls almost 8 percent of the world’s oil reserve – announced its plans to build the “most advanced sustainable city in the world” up from the ground on an empty piece of desert. Located just outside Abu Dhabi, the innovative city called Masdar City (which means source in Arabic) would run primarily on renewable energy and would produce zero waste. Many Westerners, however, dismissed it as a gimmick. Today, however, that plan has become reality.

Designed by the British firm Foster + Partners, buildings with a combination of traditional Arab building styles and the latest technology have sprouted in Masdar City to house a graduate-level university, its students and professors, laboratories, and several tech companies including Siemens’ regional headquarters. In 2009, the International Renewable Energy Agency made Masdar City the site of its world headquarters.

Created in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology is the world’s first graduate-level university dedicated to providing real-world solutions to issues of sustainability whilst living in a city created for the same purpose. During the 2012-2013 academic year, the Masdar Institute had 336 students from 52 countries and in 2013 graduated 93 students.

The city itself, however, is an innovative world of its own.

“If you walk around the UAE, you will see a juxtaposition of tradition and modernity reflected in almost every aspect of life,” said Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of Masdar. “We take great pride in preserving our rich culture and heritage while embracing what the world has to offer. Masdar City echoes this sentiment by combining traditional Arabic design principles with advanced building technologies and applications to create one of the most sustainable urban developments in the world.”

The buildings have a thick layer of insulating to keep the scorching desert heat out with a reduced wall-to-wall ration to give provide enough light without over-heating the buildings. The Masdar Institute’s buildings reduce energy demand by 56 percent and potable water demand by 54 percent against international sustainability standards. To date, the city is entirely powered by renewable energy using a 10-megawatt photovoltaic solar farm and a one megawatt rooftop photovoltaic plant located onsite.

“It felt like culture shock,” Laura Stupin, a young American engineer wrote on her blog. “The buildings are beautiful here, and they look so different from anything I’ve ever seen, anywhere. I keep telling people that it feels like I’m living in a psychology experiment.”

In Masdar city the transportation of choice is the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) car which runs on an electric motor, making it carbon-free. The sleek autonomous four-passenger vehicle, which looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, is driven by a computer that charts direction with the help of tiny magnets embedded in the road.

The city uses natural shade, narrow streets and a giant win tower to capture prevailing winds and funnel a pleasant breeze through the city. As a result, the residents enjoy a much cooler environment during the summer months that can be up to 20 degrees cooler than in downtown Abu Dhabi.

Although the Masdar City was originally scheduled to be completed in 2016, due to the strains of the global financial crisis the $17 billion project is now aiming to finish construction in 2025.

Powers behind the project

Masdar City is a unit of Masdar, a subsidiary of the Mubadala Development Company which is owned by the Abu Dhabi government and established as a strategic initiative to diversify the local economy and extend the emirate’s leadership in the energy sector.

Abu Dhabi is the largest and most oil rich of the United Arab Emirates. The UAE itself currently has the third-highest ecological footprint per capita in the world.

“While the economies of several countries in the Middle East region were historically built on the discovery and, subsequently, the export of oil to the rest of the world, the UAE recognizes the need to prepare for a future beyond oil,” said Jaber. “The UAE’s leadership has taken bold steps to be a responsible energy player and address the interconnected energy, climate and environmental challenges we collectively face. Planning ahead and broadening the energy mix to include more sustainable sources of power, we believe is the right approach to meet future energy demand.”

Since its launch in 2006, Masdar has emerged as a global player in developing and financing renewable energy producing close to 1GWh of energy around the world. With an aim to become an international hub for renewable energy, new energy and sustainable technologies, the UAE, through the Masdar initiative, has also invested in renewable energy projects in Mauritania, the Seychelles and Tonga. In addition to launching Shams1, the largest single-unit concentrated solar power project in the world, Masdar also inaugurated London Array in July – the world’s largest offshore wind farm in the UK.

Investing in sustainability

Masdar also manages the Zayed Future Energy Prize, the world’s largest annual award in the renewable energy and sustainability sector on behalf of the Abu Dhabi government. Launched in 2008, the $4 million prize honors the legacy of the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the UAE, who championed environmental stewardship as an integral part of UAE history, heritage and leadership. Surprisingly, the nominees and winners of the Zayed Future Energy Prize has been an admirable mix of innovative entrepreneurs from all over the globe rather than just high-tech entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneur and founder of Virgin Group, Richard Branson, who is one of the newest members of the ZFEP jury, said one of his favorite things about entrepreneurship is that “anybody can do it.”

“Regardless of your social and cultural background, if you’ve got an idea to change the world for the better, and can use the tools of business to make that idea a reality, then you’ll have a pretty good shot,” said Branson. “Whether it’s in pursuit of a prize or the next big business venture, a good entrepreneur manages to keep their dreams alive. I say ‘keep it alive’ because entrepreneurship is all about surviving long enough to see your dreams become reality. It means working long, hard hours, encountering failure and facing criticism, as well as celebrating success.”

So far the Masdar initiative has proven to be an important pillar of Abu Dhabi’s 2030 goals not just in terms of the economy and urban planning but also through its promising investments in renewable energy and sustainability as well. In addition to managing the ZFEP and its numerous development projects around the globe, the creation of Masdar City has proven to be more than just a futuristic settlement project. It provides a unique platform for Masdar and its partners to pilot, demonstrate, refine and develop cutting-edge technology in sustainable development. Together with the UAE leadership, the Masdar initiative has certainly shown its dedication to becoming a global leader in the energy sector, both non-renewable and renewable.

“What struck me most about the Masdar Initiative was its strong sense of ambition,” said Branson. “It reminds me of the Apollo program in that sense where the goal was not to build the best rocket motor, or to create the best astronaut space suits – the goal was putting all of those many different innovations and breakthroughs together to get a man on the moon. Masdar isn’t just about innovating renewable energy ideas, or about greener cities, it’s pulling everything together that is needed to see what a truly modern and long-term way of living on this planet may look like.”



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