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Newsletter for March 2009
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Abu Dhabi: An Oil Giant Dreams Green
By Bryan Walsh /
Abu Dhabi, Thursday, Feb.
The Time Magazine.
Sami Khoreibi can't stop smiling. The baby-faced CEO of Enviromena Power Systems, Khoreibi launched his business a little over a year ago. Now he is looking over a 10-MW solar farm in the desert outside the city of Abu Dhabi, with row after row of solar panels angled to the Middle Eastern sun like bathers lying poolside. The solar farm is the earliest tangible part of Abu Dhabi's Masdar City, a $22 billion project designed to be the world's first zero-carbon-footprint, zero-waste settlement--the embodiment of this oil-rich Arab city's surprisingly green dreams. "This is bringing attention and capital from around the world to Abu Dhabi," says Khoreibi. "We're going to use this as a launching pad for clean development."
Abu Dhabi is the last place you might expect to find the future of environmentalism. The wealthy capital of the United Arab Emirates is the world's eighth biggest producer of petroleum. But the leaders of Abu Dhabi know--perhaps better than most--that the oil won't last forever, so they have embarked on the Masdar Initiative, a multibillion-dollar push to establish the emirate as a center for clean-technology development and innovation. Those plans include Masdar City, designed by British architect Norman Foster, as well as a $250 million clean-tech investment fund and an energy-engineering school linked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If it all works, this desert emirate could become the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy and a living model for the way technological innovation could defuse the threat of climate change. "This is really a very powerful image," says Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "It clearly shows that a country that has no immediate economic need to diversify its energy production is willing and able to do so."
Abu Dhabi's leadership is all the more necessary at a moment when once vibrant green businesses are flagging, thanks in part to the plummeting price of oil. In the U.S. and Europe, new wind- and solar-power installations are slowing, energy start-ups are starving for funds and some green companies are laying off workers. But it's still full speed ahead in Abu Dhabi, where last month's World Future Energy Summit (WFES) attracted more than 16,000 visitors and companies that ranged from General Motors to modest Chinese solar manufacturers. And with a new Administration in Washington struggling to keep its own ambitious green agenda on track, Abu Dhabi kept the momentum going at WFES by announcing that at least 7% of its electricity would come from renewable sources by 2020, up from nothing today. Nor, said Masdar officials, would the recession have a major impact on the emirate's plans, announced last year, to invest $15 billion in clean energy--an amount equal to what President Barack Obama has suggested spending annually for the entire U.S. "We are looking beyond the current financial crisis," says Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, Masdar's CEO. "But all our projects are still proceeding."
Those plans include a thin-film solar factory, along with investments in wind and solar and in carbon-trading projects throughout the world. Most significantly, Masdar is pioneering a model carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) project with the energy and mining giants BP and Rio Tinto that will take CO2 emissions from industry in the emirate and store the CO2 in abandoned oil wells. Since even the most optimistic energy projections assume we'll be burning fossil fuels for decades, perfecting CCS is vital to controlling emissions--and who would be better suited to cleaning up fossil fuels than an emirate that produces nearly 3 million bbl. of oil a day? "It's hugely significant that Masdar is championing this," says Vivienne Cox, BP's head of alternative energy.
But the heart of the initiative is Masdar City, a community designed for 40,000, set to be completed by 2016, that bills itself as the city of the future. Cars will be banned, so residents will be whisked around the city on a personal rapid transit (PRT) system, an automated cable-car-like network. (The PRT cars, unveiled at WFES, look as if they were stolen from the set of Star Trek.) More prosaically, the 2.3-sq.-mi. (6 sq km) walled community will have a solar-powered desalination plant, and conservation will keep water use 60% below the norm. The city's centerpiece will be the Masdar Institute, a graduate academy that will churn out new experts in clean energy. The hope is that a pool of educated workers--plus Masdar's favorable tax policies--will draw green companies to the desert, where they will be able to test their ideas in an environmental Utopia. "There is a visionary component to it," says Frank Mastiaux, CEO of climate and renewable for E.ON, a German energy company. "Masdar and Abu Dhabi have set themselves incredibly high expectations. Now they have to be delivered."
For all the limitless funding Abu Dhabi can pour into Masdar, however, success is not guaranteed. Some urban-design experts question just how sustainable Masdar City will really be. The settlement is being built miles outside Abu Dhabi, contributing to the energy-intensive sprawl growing throughout the emirate. And while Masdar City promises to use the greenest technologies on the market, that won't make it livable. "It looks a bit like a prison to me," says Steffen Lehmann, an urban-design professor at the University of Newcastle in Australia who spoke at WFES. "It's going to be a 1% token-green enclave, while the rest of [Abu Dhabi] goes about business as usual."
And business as usual in Abu Dhabi is extremely carbon-intensive. Gasoline costs less than 50¢ a gal. (13¢ per L), and public transport is all but nonexistent. The World Wildlife Fund says the U.A.E. has the biggest per capita carbon footprint in the world, and parched Abu Dhabi uses more water per person than anywhere else. There are no plans to put a price on carbon, as even the U.S. is considering. Lehmann and others would prefer to see Masdar spend its billions greening Abu Dhabi itself, not building an entirely new settlement in vacant desert. "We have to have every city be an eco-city," Lehmann says.
He's right, but that doesn't diminish the significance of the Masdar Initiative and its high-tech approach. Environmentalists are slowly realizing that a policy of regulation--so successful in combatting past pollution problems like acid rain--simply won't be enough for global warming. The scale of the climate crisis is too vast, and the world's growth too rapid. What's needed is technological innovation, green solutions as yet undreamt of, to utterly remake the way people use energy. Masdar's crash greening may be the future. "This is real, and it shows that they are thinking ahead in a constructive way," says Nicholas Stern, an influential British economist and advocate for action on climate change. "I'm very optimistic that this is happening." Given the challenge, the world needs all the optimism it can get.
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