In just seven years from now, a barren piece of Abu Dhabi desert will become the most ecologically advanced, innovative and ultra-modern development in the world: Masdar City. The car- and carbon-free development, which will be powered entirely by renewable energy, is set to become the Silicon Valley for alternative energy. Tim Probert visited Masdar’s Abu Dhabi headquarters to find out more.

Tim Probert, Associate Editor

Such is the breakneck speed of property development in the United Arab Emirates that the ever more outlandish projects rarely catch the eye nowadays. Masdar City is different. Very different.

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The artist’s impressions and the video clips could come straight from the pen of the late Arthur C. Clarke, or from the Hollywood film Blade Runner, but in 2015, science fiction will become science fact. Masdar City will be the shining glory of new institute Masdar, which means ‘the source’ in Arabic, created in April 2006 by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to promote alternative energy.

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According to the World Wildlife Fund, Abu Dhabi’s citizens, with their gas-guzzling vehicles and heavy use of air conditioning, have the highest carbon footprint per capita in the world. On the surface, Masdar City may appear to be a mere token gesture of appeasement to environmentalists. However, the government of Abu Dhabi is throwing its weight behind Masdar, aka the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, in a serious attempt to diversify Abu Dhabi’s economy, albeit only very slightly, away from oil and gas. Masdar comprises a number of units: Masdar Innovation & Investment, Masdar Special Projects, Masdar Carbon Management, the Masdar Institute of Science & Technology and the Masdar Research Network.

All will eventually be housed in the $22 billion Masdar City, 700 hectares of desert that its progenitors hope will become a Silicon Valley for alternative energy technology.

The plan is for Masdar City to house only businesses active in the fields of sustainable and alternative energy. From 2015, the 1500 such companies selected to be housed in Masdar City will benefit from opportunities for collaboration between the research universities and facilities, industry, the financial community, entrepreneurs and business organizations. In order to attract the best and brightest, companies are being offered a number of incentives, including 100 per cent foreign ownership, a tax-free environment, intellectual property protection and transparent regulations.

The world’s first carbon-free city

Designed by world-renowned British architects Sir Norman Foster and Partners, the city will be powered entirely by renewable sources, chiefly solar energy, but it will also utilize wind power and possibly even ‘hot rock’ geothermal energy.

Today, the patch of desert that will eventually become Masdar City is home to more than two dozen different types of solar panels that are being tested to determine which kind of photovoltaic technology will work best in Abu Dhabi’s intensely hot and dusty environment.

The $22bn Masdar City development is expected to house 1500 companies in the field of alternative and green energy
Foster & Partners
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Extensive use of photovoltaic technology has been proposed, not only to power offices and homes via roof panel installations, but also, remarkably, to provide the baseload for construction of the city. A variety of panel types will be used including monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin film. Photovoltaic power is expected to provide the lion’s share of the total energy demand of Masdar City.

Concentrating solar power (CSP) Fresnel technology will be used to provide electricity and heat for the production of cooling with absorption chillers. The high temperature heat produced can then be stored overnight using molten salt technology. Wind turbines will be located at the south of Masdar City. Although there are height restrictions imposed by the adjacent airport, the projected power output will contribute enough to the baseload to cover the lighting requirement for the entire development.

Other energy sources include evacuated thermal tubes, which will be integrated into buildings to provide hot water and employed as a baseload that can be used for cooling. At present, the feasibility of a deep geothermal ‘hot rock’ borehole is being evaluated to ascertain whether it could provide a constant source of high temperature water or steam for the production of 24-hour cooling.

Finally, waste streams will be sorted and recycled. Applicable waste streams will be composted and the product will be composted and used to enrich the plantations. The remaining waste will be employed in a waste-to-energy plant. Coupled with a strategy to reduce waste at source, claims Masdar, the need for landfill sites will be completely avoided.

The renewable energy that will be used by Masdar City is to be produced outside the perimeter of the walled section, but within city limits, thus creating a ‘carbon neutral’ balance, says the institute.

In all, Masdar claims that the city will require only 25 per cent of the more than 800 MW of installed capacity needed to power a similar city based on conventional design. Water needs will be cut by more than half, meaning just 8000 m3 of desalinated water per day will be required compared with more than 20 000 m3 per day for traditional cities.

Life in Masdar City

The on-site daily population of Masdar City is expected to exceed 90 000, of which 40 000 will be residents and 50 000 commuters. Stragetically located adjacent to Abu Dhabi’s international airport 18 km southeast of the city of Abu Dhabi, Masdar City will be linked to the Emirate’s principal transport infrastructure and surrounding communities, as well as the proposed high-speed coastal rail links and local light-rail links to Abu Dhabi city and Al Raha beach.

One of the most exciting aspects of the development is the transport system within the city walls. Masdar City will be car-free (all carbon-based transport will be parked at the city boundaries) and Personal Rapid Transport (PRT) vehicles, powered by photovoltaic installations, will move residents and visitors around the city by magnetic rail.

The frequent distribution of PRT stations, which will link every point in the city, will ensure that there is an average walking distance of 100 m between stops. The PRT network will be located beneath the pedestrian level, removing any potential conflict between it and pedestrians, who will be encouraged to use the shaded walkways and narrow streets.

Teaching the teachers

The first tenant of Masdar City will be the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST). The name is reminiscent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and this is quite deliberate.

Developed in conjunction with MIT, MIST sets out to emulate the US university’s high standards and from 2009 will offer Master’s and Doctoral-level degree programmes focused on the science and engineering of advanced energy and sustainability technologies. MIT is currently assisting Masdar in attracting the world’s best scientists and engineers to create a high-calibre, homegrown academic and scientific research institute with its own identity.

MIST will also encompass the Madsar Research Network (MRN), which in conjunction with partners such as Imperial College London, the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Columbia University, USA is currently undertaking several renewable energy projects. These include photovoltaics (crystalline, thin-film and low-cost polysilicon); water technologies and management (desalination, membrane technologies); solar thermal technologies and carbon management (carbon capture and storage).

Of the $22 billion needed to build Masdar City, $4 billion will come from the Abu Dhabi government. The remaining $18 billion will come through direct investments and the creation of various financial instruments.

An essential driver for the development of the city is carbon finances. Masdar Carbon is the unit responsible for ensuring that carbon emissions reduced by Masdar City are monetized under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). In order to meet its CDM targets and capture the growing momentum of the carbon market, Masdar Carbon is developing a broad portfolio of energy-focused CDM projects, backed by strategic alliances with international industry experts and trading firms.

Carbon capture and storage project

Hydrogen Energy – the joint venture equally owned by UK oil major BP and the mining giant Rio Tinto – is one of the chief beneficiaries of Abu Dhabi’s embrace of the burgeoning carbon market. Having been caught out by the British government’s decision to fund solely post-combustion carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects, Hydrogen Energy has found support for its $2 billion pre-combustion CCS scheme – originally developed in the Scottish North Sea coastal town of Peterhead – from Masdar.

The Masdar Institute is overseeing development of Hydrogen Energy’s 420 MW (500 MW gross) carbon capture and storage plant that will use hydrogen as its primary fuel
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The project will be located at the Shuweihat S1 CMS International Power Company (Scipco) 1.6 GW/100 million imperial gallons per day independent water and power plant close to the Ruwais industrial zone – 248 km southwest of Abu Dhabi city – populated mostly by petrochemical producers. The Hydrogen Energy project’s reformer will use natural gas to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide to eventually produce electricity for the Ruwais area, which is set to need some 6 GW in the coming years.

When the power plant enters commercial operation, the hydrogen will be used to fuel GE Frame 9E gas turbines and generate 420 MW (500 MW gross) of low-carbon electricity, equivalent to more than five per cent of all Abu Dhabi’s current power generation capacity.

The 7 million m2 of Masdar City will be powered entirely by renewable energy
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The carbon dioxide will be transported and injected into a producing oil field and used to replace natural gas that is currently being injected into the oil field to maintain pressure. This natural gas could then be used either domestically or for export. This process could be deployed at scale and release a significant amount of additional natural gas for Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates.

The carbon dioxide injected into the oil field could also enable previously unrecoverable oil to be produced. If this technology was widely deployed it could boost Abu Dhabi oil production by some one to three billion barrels. Subject to the completion of the engineering design and agreement on an enabling commercial structure, the partners aspire to make the decision to proceed with construction by the first quarter of 2009.

Clean energy from clean coal

Ron Heyselaar, Masdar’s head of infrastructure projects and responsible for the project’s development, said: “This project is a match made in heaven. The oilfield reservoir characteristics are perfect and Adnoc (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company) needs to replace natural gas with something for the continued growth of the United Arab Emirates – carbon dioxide is a likely candidate.”

The Dutch former vice-president of the Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (Taqa), explained: “Firing hydrogen is very clean as it emits only vapour once burned. Apart from a small tweak to allow for the higher temperature of primary firing, it is much the same as burning natural gas. The big trick on this whole project is that the syngas technology we are developing for producing hydrogen and carbon dioxide can also be applied for coal gasification and petrochemicals. If it works, it could produce clean energy from coal fired power plants.”

Two dozen different types of solar panels are currently being tested to determine which will be most effective in Abu Dhabi’s hostile environment
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This is where Rio Tinto comes in. As a major thermal coal producer, the UK-based miner wants to position itself to deliver low-carbon hydrogen energy from fossil fuels and is participating in ten projects with the potential to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Heyselaar says that Hydrogen Energy’s technology – which has been extensively tested at Peterhead with satisfactory results – has the potential to be more efficient than current integrated gasification combined cycle and to be used to produce clean energy from clean coal worldwide.

There have been some doubts raised over Masdar, that it may be just a fig leaf for the oil-rich Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi and that Masdar City will simply become a luxury development for the rich. There can be no doubt, however, that such an ambitious, progressive project would not have happened anywhere in the world other than the United Arab Emirates.