Every January for the last three years, the attention of the media interested in renewable energy and sustainable development has turned to the Gulf Emirate of Abu Dhabi, which stages the annual World Future Energy Summit (WFES).

The paradox of one of the world’s biggest oil producing countries staging such an event is plain enough, but it does demonstrate considerable vision on the part of the rulers of Abu Dhabi, that they should be looking at their country’s future beyond its current oil-based economy. It has become a meeting place for proponents of a greener approach to energy production, transport and buildings, attracting more than its fair share of royalty and heads of state.

Although the Emirate’s ventures into renewable and sustainable technology are essentially underwritten by oil revenues, the green energy fraternity has taken to Abu Dhabi in a big way. The Emirate has been chosen as the location of the headquarters of the newly-formed International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and many clean technology companies are contemplating establishing bases for research or production in the Emirate. The highly-respected Massachusetts Institute of Science and Technology (MIT) is cooperating with Masdar to establish a post-graduate university focusing on the science and engineering of advanced renewable energy, environmental technologies and sustainability.

The main backer of WFES is Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, which is a government-backed initiative operating both in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and around the world in variety of activities that can be broadly described as sustainable technologies. Masdar has given its name to the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste city being constructed in Abu Dhabi, which was featured in the March 2009 issue of MEE. The city will house a cluster of clean energy companies as well as the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and the office of IRENA.

Journalists attending WFES had the opportunity to visit the construction site of Masdar City, which will be powered entirely by renewable energy.

Although still very much a construction site, the structures are now taking shape and the first electric vehicle, which will be used in the integrated transport system that will link key parts of the city in a network underneath street level, was on display. The project is undoubtedly ambitious and not surprisingly, given recent world financial conditions, has run into some delays and undergone some design modifications.

The question is whether all this laudable activity and genuine goodwill towards renewable and sustainable energy will translate into a meaningful change in energy production and energy use in Abu Dhabi in the foreseeable future? Currently renewable sources are a miniscule contributor to energy production although Abu Dhabi has a renewable energy target of seven per cent by 2020.

Assuming that Abu Dhabi does implement the planned 100 MW solar power plant and its other renewable energy projects, these will still be dwarfed by the gas fired power generation that dominates the installed capacity.

While gas prices remain low, there will be no economic justification to switch to more expensive renewable energy alternatives. In addition, the local population has become used to enjoying heavily subsidized power supplies and so raising prices to pay for more expensive technology becomes difficult.

But is the question is an entirely fair one and does it actually miss the point? All around the world we are still in the very early stages of transforming fossil fuel-based economies into low-to zero carbon alternatives and so expectations of what is happening in Abu Dhabi have to be managed accordingly.

What is being gained is a great deal of knowledge and experience of how to design, build and operate a sustainable living and working space, creating an environment that encourages research and development in an open way.

The Masdar experiment is as much about changing behaviour and attitudes and creating a new style of living. It is about proving that properly designed and constructed green building can be cheaper than conventional buildings, with potential energy savings of 30-40 per cent.

Masdar’s CEO Dr. Sultan Al Jaber believes that by 2020, Masdar City will be seen as the role model for sustainability that will be replicated around the world. Although not on the scale of Masdar City, fellow GCC country Qatar has already announced plans for its own carbon-neutral “Energy City”.

Through a ‘hothouse’ environment Masdar plans to use technology to alter the way people work, interact and even think, learning lessons from the successes and failures. Masdar has shown a willingness to share the information is it gaining – not something that utility companies are generally known for.

This can speed up the pace of innovation with the know-how benefiting the next generation. Not everything about Masdar City will be a success, but the fact that Abu Dhabi is willing to try, and in some cases fail, is testament to its spirit of innovation.

Nigel Blackaby
Associate Editor


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