The second annual World Future Energy Summit took place in Abu Dhabi last month amid much fanfare and expectation. PEi sent Associate Editor Nigel Blackaby along to see how an oil-rich Middle Eastern Emirate has re-branded itself as a centre for renewable energy.

Nigel Blackaby, Associate Editor

On the face of it, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi would seem to be an unlikely host for the major conference and exhibition devoted to renewable energy and energy efficiency. After all, it is one of the world’s highest energy consumers per capita, is sitting on the world’s fifth-largest oil reserves and, right now, produces virtually no energy from renewable sources.

Despite this, Abu Dhabi is now dubbing itself the capital of renewable energy after 16 820 visitors flocked through the doors of World Future Energy Summit (WFES) last month. Over 8000 of these were international visitors and the ‘Davos of Energy’ conference, as described by German Environment Secretary Matthias Machnig, was driven forward by the technology and innovation of 359 exhibiting companies and 11 national pavilions.

Ironically, the basis of Abu Dhabi’s new-found status in the pantheon of renewable energy is the wealth that oil production and export has afforded the Emirate and, through this, its ability to build an entire city powered by renewable energy. The government-backed company set up to oversee this drive towards sustainable energy technologies of which the planned city is the centre piece, is called Masdar (meaning ‘source’ in Arabic) and the city itself is to bear the same name.

Masdar describes itself as Abu Dhabi’s Future Energy Company and its creation is an extension of the vision of the founder of Abu Dhabi and founding father of the United Arab Emirates, of which Abu Dhabi is a part, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Sheikh Zayed’s respect for nature and vision of an environmental stewardship is a cornerstone of the global Masdar initiative.

The WFES was presented by Masdar and an impressive line up of keynote speakers on the opening day included the President of the Seychelles James Alix Michel and His Royal Highness Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands. The Seychelles is aiming to become the first island carbon neutral state as, vulnerable to sea-level rises and catastrophic weather conditions, it is in the front-line as regards the impact of climate change.

The President called for a common vision in protecting the environment and also made a plea for tourist-reliant destinations to be exempt from taxes on long-haul air travel. During the course of WFES, Masdar and the Seychelles government announced a collaborative agreement to develop renewable energy in the Seychelles, including an 18 MW wind project.

Prince Willem’s message to delegates was to look beyond the current economic crisis to build a foundation for a sustainable future through investment in renewable energy. He referred to the development of carbon capture and storage as “important” but also cautioned that it could be a short-to-medium term distraction from the ultimate goal.

The rhetoric from the world leaders was preceded by a speech by the CEO of Masdar, Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, who insisted that the development of renewable energy still made absolute sense, despite the difficult financial circumstances.

He announced that Abu Dhabi would set a target of producing seven per cent of its energy from renewable energy resources by 2020 and that he expected that this would produce a positive effect for the economy involving an investment of $6-8 billion. “The world has reached a tipping point in renewable energy development and Masdar will be at the forefront of this,” he said.

WFES was also the stage for the presentation of the inaugural Zayed Future Energy Prize. The award, worth $1.5 million, was presented by H.H. General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Dipal Chandra Barua, founding managing director of Grameen Shakti, for visionary efforts to bring renewable energy solutions to Bangladesh. This organization has installed more than 200 000 solar PV systems that currently provide power for more than two million rural people.

The cause of promoting renewable energy was further boosted with the launch of the International Renewable Energy Association. German parliamentarian and green energy proponent Hermann Scheer, said that the new organization would create a level playing field with conventional energy. “The timescale maybe in question, but eventually all energy must be renewable as natural resources will run out,” said Scheer. Masdar CEO Dr. Sultan confirmed that Abu Dhabi would be competing with Berlin to host the central administration for the new organization.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair addresses the summit
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The final speaker in the three-day event was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Mr. Blair argued that the scientific case for human impact on climate was clear and that a global framework was now required to reduce carbon emissions. ”We need to change course, not wait for action. This is not a choice between growth and no growth but an issue of how we achieve this goal,” he said.

Mr. Blair called for an interim target for the developed world to reduce CO2 emission ahead of any 2050 goals and the creation of partnerships with China and India to share technology and fund development, and praised Abu Dhabi for taking a lead in promoting renewable energy.

With Abu Dhabi’s focus on a defined goal for green energy likely to motivate its neighbours to follow suit, the transformation from oil to renewable-based economies has at least begun.