More than 18 months after ground was broken on the scheme, the $22bn Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar) initiative is starting to take shape. Through a series of projects, the emirate is attempting to create the world’s first carbon-neutral city and establish itself as a world centre for renewable-energy technologies.

In September, the first 92 students started their post-graduate research at the Masdar Institute of Science & Technology, the world’s first graduate academic institution dedicated to the research of alternative energy, environmental technologies and sustainability.

With bidding under way or under preparation at a series of Masdar’s centrepiece projects, Abu Dhabi’s leaders have the comfort of knowing that their scheme is at a more advanced stage than rival carbon-neutral cities, such as China’s Dongtan City, outside Shanghai, which has suffered significant delays. 

Masdar is as ambitious a megaproject as anything that has emerged from UAE developers’ drawing boards in recent years, involving a raft of new and untried technologies, industries and architectures.

Teething troubles

But it is still a long way from fruition. Launched during a regional economic slowdown, the carbon-neutral city has, unsurprisingly, encountered some teething troubles.

The bidding process on the Shams 1 concentrated solar power (CSP) flagship project, for example, has been delayed after Masdar chose to relocate the proposed 100MW plant, which is intended to feed renewable energy into the Abu Dhabi electricity grid.

The client has since shortlisted at least five alternative sites for the project, having originally intended to build the plant at Madinat Zayed in the west of the emirate. A team of Spain’s Abengoa Solar and France’s Total was shortlisted as the preferred bidder on the project, but its commitment is in doubt following the relocation.

One contractor in Abu Dhabi tells MEED that the Shams 1 project lost momentum in the summer as the client realised that changing the location would bring distinct advantages. “Masdar identified other sites in Abu Dhabi that might have more sunshine but the selected bidders were unwilling to go along with that, and this slowed down the award process,” says the contractor.

Key facts

  • 5,000 – Number of residents planned for Masdar City
  • 6.5 million tonnes – Amount of CO2 captured in first phase of Masdar’s carbon-capture scheme
  • 10MW – Generating capacity of Masdar’s first solar power plant

Source: Masdar

Masdar expects to finish the selection process for a new site before the end of October. Once that has been determined, it will get the scheme, which is to be let as a 25-year, build-own-operate concession, back under way.

Bids for the project were first submitted in October 2008, and included proposals from Saudi Arabia’s Acwa Power Projects with Spain’s Iberdrola; a German grouping of Man Ferrostaal and Solar Millennium; plus Sener and Grupo Cobra, both Spanish. Postponing what would be the world’s largest CSP facility does not represent a serious setback for Masdar, as it has other power plants already operating.

In late May 2009, it started up a 10MW solar power plant, which will provide 17,500 megawatt hours (MWh) of clean energy a year for construction work at Masdar City and the Masdar Institute of Science & Technology. The 212,000-square-metre plant was designed and constructed by the local Enviromena Power Systems at a cost of $50m.

Clean power

Masdar is also planning a range of wind power and waste-to-energy projects in Abu Dhabi. In a joint venture with Hydrogen Energy, itself a joint venture of the UK’s BP Alternative Energy and Australia’s Rio Tinto, it is proposing to build a 500MW integrated hydrogen power generation and desalination project that will make Masdar the world’s leader in clean power generation in terms of capacity.

The $2.2bn plant will be a natural gas reformer and carbon-capture facility, transforming 100 million cubic feet a day of gas produced by Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) into hydrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2),  which will then be sold back to Adnoc. The US’ Foster Wheeler is undertaking the front-end engineering and design (Feed) work, in expectation of engineering procurement and construction (EPC) contracts being awarded by the third quarter of 2010. The project is due for completion in 2014.

While renewable technologies such as solar power are at the forefront of Masdar’s efforts, it is also backing other renewable-energy technologies, including geothermal power.

Iceland’s Reykjavik Geothermal won a $2.3m contract in August to provide drilling services on a pilot geothermal project at Masdar City. Reykjavik Geothermal will drill two holes in the first half of 2010, one 3km deep and the other 4km, to test the feasibility of a scheme to generate power from water boiled in deep pipelines using latent heat in the earth’s crust. The steam produced would be used to generate up to 5MW of electricity.

Another energy initiative aims to use bio-solids – sludge from wastewater treatment plants – to generate power. Masdar has held talks with Abu Dhabi Sewerage Services Company about establishing a bio-solid power generation unit at Masdar City. About 50 tonnes of sludge are produced every day in the emirate, which could be reused as a fertiliser or soil conditioner, as well as for power generation.

If it is to be used to generate electricity, the sludge may require further treatment in a specialist plant. It will also process bio-solids produced at the buildings that will form the first phase of the city, and from the accommodation for site workers.

Masdar’s carbon management unit is advancing plans to capture greenhouse gases under the provisions of the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism framework of the Kyoto Protocol. The unit has a particular focus on CO2 capture and storage, planning to capture as much as 20 million tonnes a year (t/y) of CO2 by 2020 through 15 separate projects.

In the first phase, it aims to capture about 6.5 million t/y of CO2 from power plants and industrial facilities in Abu Dhabi by 2013. The CO2 will be transported and injected into oil reservoirs to enhance oil recovery.

Masdar has selected three sites for the scheme: an existing independent water and power plant at Taweelah; the Emirates Aluminium power plant; and the Emirates Steel Industries rolling mill at Mussafah.

The $500m project is due to reach the EPC award stage in 2010, according to sources on the scheme. Feed work is currently being undertaken by JP Kenny, a subsidiary of the US’ Wood Group. The schedule is to finish the Feed work by February or March 2010 and then tender EPC contracts.

Construction projects are the most visible manifestation of Masdar’s advances over the past three years. The 6.5-square-kilometre low-rise city near Abu Dhabi International airport has been designed by the UK’s Foster & Partners and will eventually grow to accommodate 1,500 businesses and 50,000 residents. 

Positive energy

Commercial bids have been submitted from four groups for a contract to build Masdar’s corporate headquarters at Masdar City. This will be the world’s first large-scale ‘positive energy’ building, generating more energy than it consumes. The bidders for the estimated $150m contract are the local Al-Habtoor Engineering Enterprises with South Africa’s Murray & Roberts Contractors (Middle East); US-based Contrack International; Germany’s Ed Zueblin; and Japan’s Taisei Corporation. The local Al-Jaber Group has started on the enabling works.

Masdar City Centre will comprise a five-star hotel, central plaza, convention centre, entertainment complex and shops. Germany’s Lava Architects is the consultant on the project.

A joint venture of local contractor Al-Ahmadiah and Hong Kong’s Hip Hing Construction Company has built phase one of the Masdar Institute. The building was designed by Foster & Partners. In June, Masdar received technical bids for the next phase of the project, on which US-based Parsons Brinckerhoff is the project manager. Industry sources indicate that at least four companies have submitted bids for the contract, including Al-Ahmadiah/Hip Hing, Arabian Construction Company and Ed Zueblin. A bid deadline for the scheme has not been announced.

“The real test of Masdar’s success will only come with the emergence of new, sustainable industries”

Other real estate developments will be gearing up for bidding over the next year. In May, local developer Aldar Properties revealed plans to build 820 energy-efficient villas at Masdar City at a cost of AED3bn ($817m). Aldar will build clusters of 10 or 12 villas designed to benefit from natural shading from the sun and cooling from the wind. A formal request for proposals will be issued before the end of 2009.

 Masdar and the Swiss Village Association teamed up in July to sign a strategic partnership agreement to plan and develop a ‘Swiss village’ within the Masdar City development. This will serve as the home of Swiss companies with expertise in clean technology. Swiss companies will take a role in the design, construction and occupation of the village.

It will be located between the Masdar Institute and Masdar’s headquarters, with a total built-up area of 200,000 square metres.

By 2016, the initial stage of Masdar City is expected to be up and running. But the real test of Masdar’s success will only come with the emergence of the new, sustainable industries, which are expected to appear as investment flows into the new technologies. The government expects these will transform the emirate from a technology consumer to a technology producer.

Abu Dhabihas clearly set the bar high. The challenge now is to make sure that the early stages of the project are not encumbered by over-ambitious construction schedules.