- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2009

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates | Imagine a city that emits no carbon, satisfies its entire electricity needs with renewable energy and is home to a world-class “green” university. Gas-fueled cars are banned, replaced with electric vehicles operated by computer, no drivers needed.

A project that could revolutionize urban planning is not being built in the alternative-energy havens of California or Germany, but here in the desert of a Middle East oil-producing titan.

Standing amid a crowd of reporters wearing hard hats, Khaled Awad pointed to a forest of tower cranes on the vast construction site.

In less than 10 years, said Mr. Awad, this site will be transformed into Masdar City, a “vibrant place, full of brains and talent trying to create the best clean solutions that will save the world.”

Mr. Awad oversees development of Masdar City, a green utopia that will combine the latest in sustainable design, renewable energy and low-emission technologies. It is being built by Abu Dhabi Future Energy Co., also known as Masdar, a company founded and funded by the emirate’s government to achieve a single purpose: to turn Abu Dhabi into a “green global player.”

Masdar City is part of the Masdar Initiative, announced a year ago at the first World Future Energy Summit held in this sun-drenched city. The initiative, named after the Arabic word for “the source,” will combine domestic oil revenues with foreign investment to develop technologies for creating cleaner energy and addressing climate change. Masdar City would be the hub for research and development.

Abu Dhabi, seaside capital of the United Arab Emirates, already is a global player when it comes to fossil fuels. It is the fifth-largest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and has some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world.

Petrodollars have transformed Abu Dhabi from a fishing village into the world’s richest city, complete with eight-lane highways, American-style shopping malls and luxury hotels. Nevertheless, the emirate’s leaders know that the age of oil won’t last forever, and they’re betting on alternatives.

Carbon footprints in the sand

One would hardly call Abu Dhabi a green role model, however. Endless construction, 24-hour air conditioning and a tendency to turn even the bleakest inner-city sandlots into lush green fields eat up vast amounts of natural resources. As a result, the emirate has one of the highest per-capita carbon footprints on the globe - not very comforting, considering warnings that climate change could render large parts of the Arabian Gulf uninhabitable.

Despite these problems, Abu Dhabi’s leaders - Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and his half-brother Mohammed, the crown prince - firmly believe they must bring about change. They certainly have no shortage of funding. Sheik Khalifa is chairman of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds with estimated assets of $328 billion at the end of 2008, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

At the second World Future Energy Summit last month, Abu Dhabi announced plans to boost the share of renewable energy from virtually 0 percent to 7 percent of its total power generation by 2020. In addition, the crown prince set up a $15 billion fund last year to invest in clean-technology science projects, energy-efficient research and renewable-energy companies worldwide.

So far, even a global financial crisis has not been able to halt the progress of this movement. Abu Dhabi last week vowed that it will not abandon its clean-technology efforts despite the steep drop in oil prices that has accompanied the worldwide economic slowdown.

“Abu Dhabi is looking beyond the short-term price of oil,” said Sultan Al Jaber, the chief executive officer of Masdar, who is said to have close ties to Abu Dhabi’s royal family. “Our world has reached a tipping point when it comes to renewable energy. We are heading in the right direction and it cannot be stopped.”

Abu Dhabi’s most ambitious green project is undoubtedly Masdar City.

Solar city

For a total investment of $22 billion, Masdar is building a 2.3-square-mile city next to Abu Dhabi’s airport that will house 50,000 people when it is completed by 2015. Masdar City is proclaimed as a role model for sustainable living, researching, producing and benefiting from the one thing that is plentiful in the region: sunshine.

A 10-megawatt solar power plant, the first of its size in the Middle East, is almost up and running. Even Abu Dhabi’s dusty haze cannot block the glare of the plant’s 87,000 solar panels, manufactured by First Solar Inc. of Tempe, Ariz., and Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd. of China’s Jiangsu province.

The plant will power Masdar City’s construction and later provide about 17,500 megawatt hours of clean energy a year - about 5 percent of the city’s total energy needs. As a result, the city’s developer can offset 15,000 tons of carbon, “equivalent to 11,000 people flying from Abu Dhabi to London,” said Sami Khoreibi, chief executive officer of Enviromena Power Systems LLC, an Abu Dhabi startup firm that is managing Masdar City’s solar portfolio.

More than 200,000 square yards of roof space will be decked with enough solar panels to meet the city’s energy demand - an estimated 200 to 240 megawatts - and feed leftover power to the national grid.

Masdar City was designed by famed British architect Norman Foster, who crafted the iconic glass dome atop the Reichstag building in Berlin and the glass-enclosed courtyard of the Old Patent Office Building in Washington. The city will be walled in to protect it from desert winds and combine European piazzas with narrow alleys providing shade and shelter from the heat. A solar-powered desalination plant will supply its water, and irrigated fields nearby will provide fresh produce.

Green machines

Don’t even think about steering a gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle into Masdar City. Cars will not be allowed, but who would want to drive one if you can whiz around the city at the touch of a button instead?

Masdar just introduced a sleek, motorcycle-style vehicle that is key to what it calls a “personal rapid-transit system.”

These driverless, electric-powered taxis will be waiting at stations across the city to transport one to four passengers to their desired destinations via touch-screen technology.

To keep carbon emissions as low as possible, Masdar has been using mostly recycled steel from local suppliers instead of flying in cheap steel from China.

The West is impressed.

“This is showing the world what can be done,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair proclaimed at last month’s green energy conference in Abu Dhabi. “Here, in one of the carbon centers of the world, this country … decided to become a center of alternative energy.”

Apart from its energy-efficient design, Masdar City is also about pooling brainpower. It will be home to a clean-tech university associated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Masdar faculty will spend a year before they start teaching in Abu Dhabi. The first students will begin their studies in September.

Abu Dhabi is a founding member of the International Renewable Energy Agency, a global organization for renewable energy that was established last week at a conference in Bonn. More than 50 countries - including Germany, Denmark and Spain - have signed up as active members of the group, and Abu Dhabi is lobbying aggressively to locate the agency’s headquarters in Masdar City.

Masdar hopes the resulting influx of intellectuals will attract investors and bring new business to the emirate. The city would be home to hundreds of cutting-edge companies that can develop, supply and test clean technologies in what Mr. Awad called described as “a huge living laboratory.”

Abu Dhabi hopes Masdar City will evolve into a clean-tech hub to rival the scientific and economic clout of California’s Silicon Valley. The green utopia is to become “the definition for innovation in clean technology,” Mr. Awad said.

Masdar City’s first tenant was announced last week: General Electric Corp., which will build an “Ecomagination Center” aimed at supporting research and development and showcasing GE’s clean technologies.

More industry giants, including Siemens AG and BP Alternative Energy, are expected to open showrooms or research facilities in the city. By drawing on the synergies created in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi hopes to become an exporter of clean technologies that could help reduce the carbon footprints of cities around the world.

Plans for the future must take into account today’s troubles, however. The global recession has curtailed business investment, and Masdar City needs tenants. Plus, the government must continue to fund projects even as oil prices plunge below budget estimates.

Eduardo Goncalves, who manages a large sustainability campaign at the World Wildlife Fund, said last week in Abu Dhabi that he was convinced Masdar City would succeed despite the cloudy economic environment.

“A lot of people these days are talking about a green new deal,” Mr. Goncalves said. “Well, Masdar may be the real deal.”

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