Masdar City: a source of inspiration?

Edward Milford, Earthscan, UK

Abu Dhabi’s zero-carbon, zero-waste Masdar City is the focus of a much wider à‚— and well-funded à‚— sustainable energy initiative from the heart of the oil and gas world.
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Money may not make the world go around, but the lack of it is most often what hampers a lot of renewable energy projects. In many respects, the multi-faceted Masdar initiative looks and sounds like a lot of other renewable energy master plans. However, it does have that key ingredient, money, and plenty of it. As a result, it is able to move forward rapidly and purposefully across a whole range of projects.

Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates, sits on about 10 per cent of the world’s oil and 5 per cent of its natural gas. In just a couple of decades it has built up and profited from a large pool of energy expertise centred round the oil and gas sector. The rulers of the emirate are keen to maintain its global position in the energy business and have recognised that, to do so, they will need to invest seriously in a range of new energy skills, particularly those associated with the renewable energy sector.

As a result, with the active support of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a decision was made to set up the Masdar initiative and support it with an investment of $15 billion, which makes it the largest, single government investment of its kind in the world.

The initiative is driven by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (ADFEC), which is a wholly owned company of the government of Abu Dhabi, through the Mubadala Development Company.


The goal of the initiative is ambitious. It seeks to establish “an entirely new economic sector in Abu Dhabi”, one that will diversify the economy, become a knowledge-based industry and “play a decisive role in Abu Dhabi’s transition from a technology consumer to a technology producer”. More specifically, it will seek to position the country as “a world-class research and development hub for future energy technologies” and “drive the commercialisation and adoption ofࢀ¦technologies in sustainable energy, carbon management and water conservation”.

All of this can simply sound like unexceptional platitudes, just like many another renewable energy master plans that make it onto, but not off, the drawing board. However, crucially, the country not only has the substantial expertise in global energy markets to carry out the plan out, it also has the resources. Using its cash, it can push forward rapidly, significantly and visibly in the areas it has identified.

The initiative has several different strands. One of its most eye-catching elements is the construction of Masdar City, a zero-carbon, zero-waste development aiming to house 40 000 people and provide employment for an additional 50 000 commuters. Another aspect of the initiative is its utilities and asset management programme, which is building a portfolio of operating assets and taking strategic equity stakes in companies around the world through the Masdar Clean Tech Fund. Another strand is the development of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which is being developed in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Masdar institute will be sited in Masdar City. Another unit, the Industries Unit, is looking to invest in bringing renewable energy production to Masdar City.

A further component is Masdar’s Carbon Management Unit, which will look at carbon reduction and monetization as well as carbon capture and storage. The final piece, for now, is the World Future Energy Summit, together with the Zayed Future Energy Prize. It is an impressive and comprehensive list of activities, and many of them are moving forward apace.


As the geographical core of the initiative, Masdar City has been one of the elements to move forward most quickly. The concept is simple, but radical: zero carbon and zero waste. This has involved a radical rethink of the way the city will function and the adoption of the principles behind the WWF ‘one-planet living’ guidelines.

Sir Norman Foster, the British architect, is behind the design of the city, while detailed planning and preparation have been done by a range of international consultants and experts, including Pooran Desai from BioRegional, the UK-consultancy WSP and US-based CH2M Hill.

The 7 km2 site chosen is on the edge of Abu Dhabi, near the airport, about 17km from the city of Abu Dhabi. The fundamentals of the plan have been agreed and ground broken, with phase one underway. Over $300 million of procurement is in place, and an additional $1 billion is expected to be committed by the end of 2009. The city is due to be built in seven years, at a total cost of $22 billion. The first $4 billion of this is coming from the Masdar initiative, with the remaining $18 billion being raised through direct investments and other financial instruments.

Much of the design will adopt local, vernacular architectural principles, but this will be mixed with a lot of cutting-edge technology, some of it still in the experimental phase. The city will incorporate traditional medinas, souks and wind towers, and make use of both open public squares and narrow, shaded walkways to connect homes, schools, restaurants and shops. The buildings will incorporate a wide range of passive-building features and should consume well under a quarter of the energy used by comparable buildings elsewhere in the region.

There will be no cars in Masdar City, indeed, no internal combustion engines of any type. Instead, there will be a network of electric trams (a light rail transit (LRT) system, which will also link to the planned Abu Dhabi LRT system), and smaller ‘personal rapid transit’ vehicles, effectively an automatic, driverless system of electric taxis controlled by a central computer. These will be programmed so that, once occupied, the passenger has privacy and no other passenger can board along the route.

All the energy used in Masdar will be generated from renewables, including the power for heating, cooling and transport. The bulk of this is likely to come from solar generation of one form or another. There will be power generation for a smart grid from solar thermal power, as well as concentrating PV and distributed PV throughout the city. The wind resource in Abu Dhabi is generally poor and will contribute little to the overall mix, but some geothermal and waste-to-energy, particularly from biowaste, are also likely to be significant contributors.


Masdar City expects to house a population of 90 000 people made up of 40 000 residents and 50 000 daily commuters. It has already announced its first major tenant: GE Energy will site its new, 4000 m2 regional ‘Ecomagination’ centre in the city. This will support the development of energy-efficient products and also showcase GE technologies in the renewable energy, water treatment and other sectors. Importantly, it will also facilitate research and development work with the nearby Masdar Institute.

Masdar City now à‚— a radical new approach to sustainable development
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Other companies are likely to quickly follow suit. Abu Dhabi has offered to host the secretariat for IRENA à‚— the newly launched International Renewable Energy Agency at Masdar. Many of the companies that the initiative will be investing in are also likely to site regional offices at Masdar. The financial benefits can be significant: the city is designated as a ‘special free zone’ without restrictions on foreign ownership or capital movements, taxes or import tariffs, but with strengthened protection for intellectual property. A significant, global drive to attract industry partners to participate in the initiative is underway.


Numerous partnership opportunities with the technology that may be used at Masdar are available to companies. Among the energy technologies they can expect to source are both PV and solar thermal power generation (concentrating PV, parabolic trough and parabolic dish generation); advanced thermal waste treatment plants; geothermal systems for district cooling; and smart grid-management systems. They are also looking at a range of other district cooling systems, together with water desalination and grey-water treatment plants and waste handling systems, including plasma and pyrolysis. Procurement is also underway for IT systems, transport infrastructure, and facilities management and services.

Masdar City is just one strand of the overall initiative. Another that is already making its influence felt is the Industries Unit, which has been investing directly in a range of renewable energy companies. The flagship investment has been the creation of Masdar PV. This aims to become a top-three, global, thin-film PV company. It has recruited Dr Rainer Gegenwart as CEO and Joachim Nell as COO.

The company broke ground on a new factory near Erfurt in Germany in August 2008 and will shortly start building its Abu Dhabi plant using the same model. It expects final acceptance of its German plant by October 2009, and of its Abu Dhabi plant by March 2010. The Abu Dhabi plant will be the first high-tech semiconductor manufacturing facility in the region.


The initial target is to get output up to 420 MW per year across the two sites (210 MW at each site) with an investment of $600 million. Thin film has been chosen for its better performance at higher temperatures. The company expects to sell mainly to integrators for systems of 100 kWp or larger. Its modules will be 1.4, 2.8 or 5.7 m2 in size.

Masdar PV is also serving as the anchor client in the solar manufacturing cluster, being established in Abu Dhabi. In the medium term, this aims to house crystalline, thin-film and concentrating PV manufacturing, as well as the supplier base to support these companies.

Several other renewable investments, with significant stakes being taken in solar PV companies such as Solyndra, and Nanogram. Masdar is a significant investor with Abengoa in the Spanish solar thermal power company Torresol, which is just starting to build some new projects.

Foster & Partners’ rendering of the finished zero carbon, zero waste city
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In the wind energy field, Masdar has purchased the Finnish company WinWind, and after Shell pulled out of the London Array Masdar took on a one-third stake in the large, offshore wind farm planned for the Thames Estuary in the UK.

Another strand to the Masdar initiative that should be visible soon is the Institute of Science and Technology. This is being developed in Masdar City in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Science and Technology (MIT). The institute is launching its first Master of Science programmes in September 2009, and aims to have PhD programmes going by 2011.

Recruitment of faculty staff has been carried out with MIT’s assistance, and research will take place both in the US and Abu Dhabi. Among the topics to be looked at will be hybrid solar energy conversion, high-performance PV cells, wave power and the integration of renewable energy into grids.


The other strands to the Masdar initiative are the Carbon Management Unit, the World Future Energy Summit and the Zayed Future Energy Prize. The Carbon Management Unit aims to monetize carbon reduction projects under the clean development mechanism (CDM), and support the development of carbon capture and storage.

The World Future Energy Summit has now been held twice in Abu Dhabi (see the report on page 22) and is planned to be an annual event.

It has attracted notable, high-profile speakers, with former British prime minister Tony Blair giving the closing address at the 2009 event. A companion event, the European Future Energy Summit, is being launched in Bilbao, Spain in June this year.

The Zayed Future Energy Prize, associated with the Masdar initiative and the World Future Energy Summit, was awarded this year to Dipal Barua, founding managing director of Grameen Shakti, who won $1.5 million.

The Arabic word Masdar was chosen as the name of the project because one definition of the word is ‘source’, in the sense of the root or spring from which things originate. For years, many good renewable energy projects have suffered through lack of access to sources of funding.

The Masdar initiative is showing that the combination of good projects and plentiful funding can result in the rapid development of even the most ambitious plans. As such, it may become a beacon for others contemplating whether large-scale investment in renewables can really pay off.


Edward Milford is former publisher of Renewable Energy World magazine and chairman of Earthscan, which publishes books and journals on renewable energy and other sustainability subjects.

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