Edward Milford reports from the recent second annual World Future Energy Summit, which took place in Abu Dhabi. The Emirate wants to position itself as a global leader in sustainable development.

Edward Milford, Earthscan, UK

Abu Dhabi may seem an odd venue for a major, global conference about renewable energy. It sits on some ten per cent of the world’s oil reserves, and five per cent of the world’s natural gas.

The city itself has grown from almost anything into a high-rise metropolis, completely reliant on car transport in the last few decades. It is a testament to what type of city you build in a hot climate with almost unlimited energy at almost zero cost.

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However, the Emirate recognized that this also gives it two other things that catalysed the event. It has the highest per capita CO2 emissions in the world (and the decency to recognise this as an issue); and it also has huge financial muscle.

The second World Future Energy Summit took place in the city from 19 to 21 January. It, together with the Zayed Future Energy Prize, is one small but visible part of the multi-faceted Masdar initiative, a $15 billion plan to build a sustainable energy arm onto Abu Dhabi’s existing energy expertise. The airport and the city boasted an impressive array of billboards promoting the event.

Delegates and dignitaries

There was an impressive array of speakers from around the world, including political figures such as Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the UK, Quentin Bryce, the Governor General of Australia, and James Alix Michel, the President of the Seychelles. There were more than 350 companies at the adjoining exhibition, which was visited by over 16 000 people from 95 countries. The event, which is due to be held annually, may be on its way to establishing itself as the ‘Davos of the energy world’ as claimed by Matthias Machning, German State Secretary for the Ministry of Environment, in his speech to the summit.

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There was an optimistic mood to much of the conference. This was clearly influenced in part by the change of administration in the USA – with President Obama’s inauguration coinciding with the middle day of the three-day event. Dan Arvizu, Director of the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, highlighted the strength of the team appointed to advise the new President, and their engagement with, and commitment to find solutions to, the problem of climate change.

Even just the mention of President Obama’s inauguration by Tony Blair in his closing remarks elicited a loud cheer from the audience. As Tony Blair commented, it is a long time since that has been the response (and, he added, “it gets harder!”)

This optimism was maintained despite concerns about the impact of the credit crunch and the slow down in the global economy. Almost without exception, speakers and panellists saw this as an opportunity rather than a threat. Tony Blair, answering questions at a press conference, noted that as the global economy definitely needs a fiscal stimulus, the renewable energy industry is an obvious place to make use of such a push.

Another main theme was the need for partnerships. Several of the company presentations such as that from eSolar from California and Econcern from the Netherlands stressed the importance of this as a way to leverage the best technology and expertise. Many of the national presentations also referred to the benefits of such international co-operation, including that from Ana Aguirre Zurutuza, Minister for Industry in the Basque Government in Spain, and Prince Willem-Alexander from the Netherlands.

World’s largest renewable energy prize awarded

The first annual Zayed Future Energy Prize was won by Dipal Chandra Barua, the founding managing director of Grameen Shakti, for his work on bringing renewable energy to the rural population of Bangladesh. The runner-up prize was won by Martin Green – the leading PV researcher has been developing new solar cells that should have substantially lower costs from the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia.

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Named after the former ruler of the United Arab Emirates, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the prize is worth $1.5 million to Mr Barua, and $350 000 to the runner up.

204 entries were received from over 50 countries; these were narrowed down to a shortlist of 20. The panel of judges was chaired by Dr Pachauri, who is also Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The prize is due to be awarded annually, to up to three individuals, companies or organizations that have made significant contributions to the future of energy.

2009 is due to be a key year for the global negotiations to tackle climate change, culminating in the Copenhagen summit at the end of the year, which will try and reach a global ‘post-Kyoto’ deal. If the optimism, engagement and sense of partnership that characterised this impressive and smoothly-run summit can be maintained, the chances of reaching an equitable and workable agreement at Copenhagen will be significantly improved.