Abu Dhabi, January 2009. Surrounded by construction cranes, a multi-story concrete monolith rises from a barren, dusty surface. The Masdar Institute of Technology's first students and staff are to move in this coming September and become the pioneers of Masdar City, a test-tube town designed to spare the environment both greenhouse gases and waste. According to the plans of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, starting in 2016 a total of 50,000 people will live in an area of six square kilometers, and their energy requirements will be covered exclusively from regenerative sources. The planners expect around 1,500 clean tech companies to join the academic pioneers and fill the city with life. "Masdar will be the city of the future," says Khaled Awad, Director of property development for Masdar City, with conviction.
It was just one year ago that the Emirate announced an ambitious plan: to conjure a totally climate-neutral city out of the empty desert (new energy 2/2008). Masdar City is to blossom like an oasis in the midst of this rich oil state, which has five million inhabitants and the world's heaviest per capita consumption of resources. Construction costs are estimated at 22 billion US dollars.
Promises were swiftly followed by action: the entire site has been leveled, and within the next few weeks an adjacent ten-megawatt solar power station will be supplying electricity for the ongoing construction of the city designed by the British architect Sir Norman Foster. It is an enormous challenge, especially for a region that, as Awad says, "hasn't been known for innovation for a thousand years."
Masdar City is a radically different alternative to the capital, Abu Dhabi, just a thirty minute drive away. There, enormous numbers of air-conditioning systems gobble up electricity that first has to be produced by gas-fired power stations. An unusually high density of European sports cars and luxury limousines, mostly favoring white paintwork, cruise the six-lane highways, and drinking water is extracted from seawater in energy-intensive desalination plants.
Energy is cheap in Abu Dhabi: electricity costs only a few cents. So in spite of the desert's abundance of sunshine, none of the many high-rise buildings, shopping malls, or five-star hotels feature solar arrays. In Masdar City, in contrast, electricity consumption is to be cut by 80 percent, and solar energy is to cover 80 percent of the remaining consumption. Waste will be sorted or composted, and waste water cleaned or used in the extraction of oil. Buildings and footpaths will stand on concrete stilts seven meters above the ground, enabling a cooling circulation of air while leaving enough room for a traffic network on the lower level.
Speaking of traffic, in order to reach the ambitious energy-saving and climate targets, internal combustion engines with efficiencies below 20 percent will be completely banished from city traffic. A rail line will link Masdar City with Abu Dhabi and with the nearby international airport. Pods - electric vehicles with four to six seats - will ferry passengers around the urban area. They'll have their own stations on the lower traffic level, spaced not more than 200 meters apart. Pods look more like golf carts than cars, but are comfortable and energy efficient and will take people wherever they want to go without any intermediate stops. Remotely controlled from a central point, they'll roll on rails fitted with magnetic sensors at five-meter intervals for optimized navigation.
A Dutch firm called 2getthere developed the pods, whose electric motors are run by powerful lithium iron phosphate batteries. A special on-ramp before each station and an off-ramp following it allow individual pods to stop and start without interfering with the flow of traffic on the main track. Theoretically, pods can travel very close to one another - at half-second intervals - but during test operation in the coming decade they'll be kept three or four seconds apart. This transport system resembles the remote control vehicle systems used in warehouses and container terminals, and its developers will be gaining experience with a pilot project at London's Heathrow airport along with the test project in Masdar City.
For short distances between offices, cafes, and homes on the city's higher level, inhabitants can walk, ride on Segway Personal Transporters (sophisticated two-wheeled electric scooters), or ride normal bicycles. Given the planned building density of this development, there wouldn't be room for cars - or pods - everywhere anyway. Lanes in Masdar City are planned to be just seven to twelve meters wide. Foster + Partners of London are falling back on the traditional designs used in Arab settlements and souqs (markets). Buildings that are close together give each other shade, reducing the amount of electricity required for air-conditioning systems. The lane width also allows enough daylight to enter offices and homes. Buildings are to be insulated against heat with a layer of sheathing thirty centimeters thick. Copper foils, with self-cleaning Teflon coating to hold off the desert dust, can also be fitted to walls to reflect light and heat. To cut the need to desalinate seawater, every drop of waste water will be treated in Masdar City. Water-free urinals and flow regulators on water taps could reduce the requirement for processed seawater by 75 percent. Waste will travel through vacuum pipes under the city to a central collecting point for sorting and reuse, where possible. Residual waste is to be incinerated or converted into combustible gas in fermentation plants, and the remaining solids will be used as building materials.
Masdar project: just another rich man's playground? Perhaps, but it could also give a strong impulse
to sustainable urban planning projects all over the world, Masdar
Even after improving its energy efficiency in these ways, the desert city will still consume at least 350,000 megawatt-hours of electricity every year. While the first ten-megawatt photovoltaic plant will soon be generating electricity for construction work, additional solar arrays with a total power of 240 megawatts are to be installed on the city's roofs and other surfaces. Forty-one different technologies are currently under test, from polycrystalline and amorphous silicon cells to thin-film modules, provided by 33 solar firms from all over the world. PV expert Sameer Abu Zaid emphasizes that "the conditions here are very different from those in manufacturers' laboratories." On a small testing area, systems supplied for free by manufacturers have to show how much current they can actually produce at temperatures of up to 80 degrees when contaminated with desert dust. Although trials have been running for several months already, Zaid doesn't have a favorite yet. When he does the manafacturers could be in line for a big order.
Vision: Norman Foster's design, a force for regeneration, Masdar
Solar thermal power stations constitute a second source of solar power. Shams 1, an initial 100-megawatt plant, will go into operation next year. Negotiations are now proceeding for two more power stations of the same size, Shams 2 and 3. Part of the remaining energy gap is to be filled by the incineration of waste such as compressed filtrate blocks from the planned sewage treatment facilities. The city's developers are also considering a geothermal power plant, since electricity from the photovoltaic thermal power systems is currently around five times more expensive than that from the gas turbines typical in the country. They say increased energy efficiency will compensate for the higher costs. "We want Masdar City to be profitable, not just a sunk cost," says Khaled Awad. "If it is not profitable as a real estate development, it is not sustainable."
During the construction phase and at night, Masdar City is unlikely to be able to do completely without fossil fuels. In pure net terms, however, the zero-emission objective should be achieved. The developers have therefore devised a system of emission vouchers. During construction, all emissions from cement mixers, workers' buses, and consultants' flights to Masdar will be recorded. Likewise for the electricity supplied to the city overnight from conventional gasfired power stations. Conversely, the solar power stations will produce surplus electricity during the day that Abu Dhabi will then use, economizing on fossil fuels. Only the supply of food and consumer goods has been left out of the overall climate balance, but thought is being given to providing the city with adjacent cultivated areas after construction has been completed in order to reduce imports of meat, vegetables, and fruit.
Whether the city's planners have done their sums right won't be known until the coming decade. That's because the complex interplay of renewable electricity, energy efficiency, and intelligent infrastructure is still unique and can only be calculated in computer simulations to a limited extent. "Far less complex projects have failed in practice," says Roberto Sanchez-Rodriguez, an urban planner at the University of California at Riverside. He explains that, for one thing, solar arrays designed to make buildings completely climate-neutral actually produce less current than previously calculated; to make things worse, although intelligently sensor-controlled ventilation and heating systems work for individual rooms, feedback effects in a complete building make them go crazy.
But in order to be economic, zero-emission projects have to work from the very beginning. Any correction can easily burst the budget for construction costs. "It depends on the size of the project," says Karen C. Seto, an expert on sustainable urban development at Yale University. On a small scale, things may work well, she says, but experience with whole cities is simply lacking. Masdar City provides an opportunity to remedy precisely this knowledge gap. If it succeeds, the city could become a model for similar urban construction projects in Arabia, India, and China.
Only then will Masdar City be able to support the Emirate's ambitious strategy for the future. "Our goal is to make Abu Dhabi a global leader in the field of renewable energy," says Sultan Al Jaber, chief executive officer of the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (ADFEC). Clean tech firms from all over the world are to be attracted to Masdar by tax benefits. The US General Electric group, which intends to build a research center for energy technology, has already responded to the lure of the tax-free zone. At the same time, in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Masdar Institute is becoming a think tank for energy technology. The Arabs expect that the first 100 undergraduate and doctoral students who take up their studies in September in the middle of the construction site will be joined by others to total 800 by 2016. Drawn to the campus from all over the world, these students will lay the foundations for new solar cells, power stations, and intelligent grids. Masdar's planners are expecting the Institute to have the same significance as Stanford University has for Silicon Valley, California. The ideas of its graduates should lead to the founding of new companies, funded with Arab start-up capital. The Emirate is ready to spend a total of $15 billion on this project. Only around four and a half billion of this amount will go into the first phase of construction and the new city's infrastructure. The further 18 billion estimated for construction of the city is to come from foreign investors drawn by Masdar's "zero-emission" motto.
Can this still be done in times of economic crisis and falling oil prices? Abu Dhabi won't be deterred and intends to stick to its tight time schedule for the sustainable desert city. Yet, the Emirate is putting its credibility on the line with another mammoth project at the same time, just a few kilometers away from the model eco-city. The Ferrari Theme Park is now rising on an area of 250,000 square meters on Yas Island. The island itself is four times the size of Masdar City. Besides a six-kilometer Formula 1 racetrack, the plans include extensive water parks, hotels, golf courses, and a 300,000 square meter super shopping mall. But nobody here mentions sustainable energy.
This could hardly be more at variance with Abu Dhabi's visions of the future, and it makes the profitability of the Masdar project all the more important. If the city doesn't pay off, it'll be just another rich man's playground - like the Ferrari Theme Park. If it stays in the black, however, investors won't be slow to get involved. This success could then give a strong impulse to sustainable urban planning projects all over the world.