The Gulf’s rich endowment of hydrocarbons means there has been little motivation for countries in the region to explore fuel efficiency and low-carbon technology. But Abu Dhabi aims to change this rule with the launch of Masdar City, the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste city, on 6 square kilometres of desert land.

The ambition evident in Masdar – Arabic for ‘the source’ – is underlined by the fact that one of the world’s largest hydrocarbons producers has taken this step.

According to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2008, the UAE has the world’s largest carbon -footprint per capita.

The Masdar development is the manifestation of a strategic ambition to transform Abu Dhabi from being known as a large carbon dioxide producer into a global centre of excellence for renewable-energy research, development and innovation.

Economic priority

Since its inception in 2006, Masdar City has been a national priority, overseen by Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar), a wholly owned affiliate of the government of Abu Dhabi through Mubadala Develop-ment Company.

It is the foundation of a wider plan by the emirate to leverage its position as a research and development hub for energy technologies through investment.

The long-term aim is to create a broad range of innovative industries that will generate a steady flow of ideas and technologies, and at the heart of its vision is Masdar City.

Masterplanned by UK-based architect -Foster & Partners, the city will feature sustainability as part of its fabric. Dispensing with -fossil fuel-based energy sources, the car-free city will be powered by solar, wind and biofuels.

It will be surrounded by high walls that will help keep out sand and grit, allowing wind to be funnelled through the city’s main arteries to keep temperatures down. Interactive, heat-sensitive technology will activate low-intensity lighting in response to pedestrian traffic and mobile phone use.

The city will be constructed over six phases, which are due for completion by 2016. By then, residents will be propelled around the city’s elevated platforms in pod-like vehicles.

But for all the futuristic plans, there is a pragmatic intent behind the Masdar scheme. The city is destined to become an engine of economic growth, expected to add 2 per cent to Abu Dhabi’s gross domestic product on completion.

Abu Dhabiis seeking to create a city that generates 70,000 jobs, accommodates 40,000 residents and offers transport to 50,000 daily commuters.

Up to 1,500 companies are expected to take advantage of a range of investment incentives, including 100 per cent foreign ownership, zero taxes, zero import tariffs, zero restrictions on capital movement and increased intellectual property protection. 

“The path to a sustainable future needs to begin with educating our younger generation”

Sultan al-Jaber, chief executive officer, Masdar

Sensitive to criticism that Masdar could stand as an island of ecological correctness in a sea of gas-guzzling excess, the Abu Dhabi authorities want it to spread good practice beyond its walls and set a regional standard for dealing with carbon emissions.

The long-term strategic aim is to embed new green technologies into the UAE’s future energy strategy and transform it into an exporter of knowledge and expertise in renewable-energy technology.

Sultan al-Jaber, chief executive officer of Masdar, outlined his-long term vision in mid June when speaking at the launch of an agreement between the Education Ministry and Abu Dhabi Education Council to advance sustainability and renewable energy science study in schools across the country.

“The path to a sustainable future needs to begin with educating our younger generation about climate change, energy security, sustainability, the environment and clean energy,” said Al-Jaber.

“To meet this objective, we are working towards developing the UAE as a renewable-energy and sustainable-technology hub.”

Masdar City will also be home to the -Masdar Institute of Science & Technology, the region’s first postgraduate level, research-driven scientific institution focused entirely on renewable energy. The institute will serve as a hub for a cluster of companies ranging from clean-technology venture capital funds to manufacturers of photovoltaic panels, which are used to produce solar energy.

It is evident that Abu Dhabi’s leaders have thought strategically about how Masdar can be most effective. Developed in co-operation with the US’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Masdar Institute will bring together a pool of scientists, engineers, managers and technicians to develop technology and enterprise both in the region and globally. 

The successful bid to host the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency – the first international organisation to focus exclusively on renewable energies – is another astute move, adding institutional heft and credibility to the venture.

This also represents the first time a leading international organisation has chosen the Middle East as the location for its headquarters.

Global leader

Masdar has invested outside the UAE in renewable energy projects – for example, launching a strategic investment programme in the global photovoltaic manufacturing industry through a $230m plant in Germany. It has also acquired a 20 per cent stake in the UK’s 1GW London Array offshore wind farm, the world’s largest.

One of the biggest challenges facing Masdar is to live up to the substantial hype it has -generated in its brief existence. Other carbon-neutral cities, such as China’s Dongtan, have struggled to get beyond the drawing board. The arrival of the first students at the Masdar Institute in the autumn shows that Abu Dhabi has at least got further than that.

“The long-term aim is to transform the UAE into an exporter of expertise in renewable-energy technology”

Yet for the project to emerge as more than the sum of its parts, Abu Dhabi must realise a more challenging agenda as set out by Al-Jaber: to remake Abu Dhabi as an exporter of knowledge and expertise, rather than simply of -barrels of crude.

That is the measure by which Masdar’s success will ultimately be judged.

Geothermal power

Much attention has been given to the pioneering plans of Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar) to use solar and hydrogen energy to power its zero-carbon city.

As part of its approach to the use of alternative power sources, the company also plans to run a pilot scheme to harness the earth’s energy to produce heat and power at the city, the GCC’s first such scheme.

In August, Masdar awarded Iceland’s Reykjavik Geothermal a E1.6m ($2.3m) contract to provide drilling services on a pilot geothermal energy scheme at the city, which could provide up to 5MW of power.

Reykjavik will drill two holes at the Masdar site, one 3 kilometres deep and the other 4km. Water will be passed through the holes where it will be heated beyond boiling point.

The steam produced will be used to power turbines and air conditioning units.

Although the scheme is in its infancy, -Masdar is keen to push ahead with it as quickly as possible.

“This is the pilot stage of the scheme,” says one senior Masdar source. “We would expect to be able to move ahead with the main development later on in 2010.”

Up to six more contractors will be hired to work on the scheme by the end of 2009.

If the pilot is successful, it could prove one of the cheapest and most reliable energy sources in the Middle East. Iceland, for example, produces 24 per cent of its energy using three geothermal power plants and meets 80 per cent of its hot water needs by tapping into the earth’s energy.

Although Abu Dhabi does not have Iceland’s geological advantages – the tiny European country has a high level of volcanic activity – the Masdar source says that previous studies into the heat of the earth under Abu Dhabi have suggested the technology is still viable in the emirate.

Carbon capture

Abu Dhabi’s commitment to environmental concerns does not just extend to the use of -alternative energy. The emirate also plans to halve its carbon emissions by capturing and storing as much as 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (C02) by 2020.

Masdar will play a key part in these plans. In November 2008, it awarded a front-end engineering and design (Feed) contract to the US’ Mustang Engineering to design the first phase of its carbon capture and storage scheme.

Under the project being developed by -Mustang, 5 million tonnes a year of CO2 will be captured from the Emirates -Aluminium (Emal) power plant at Taweelah, the Emirates Steel Industries steel mill at Mussafah and the Abu Dhabi Water & Electricity (Adwea) power plant at Taweelah.

The CO2 will be stored for reinjection into Abu Dhabi’s oil and gas fields, freeing up the natural gas Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) currently uses to maintain reservoir pressure.

Mustang’s designs are due to be completed in October 2009. An engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contract on the scheme was due to be tendered in early 2009, although this was pushed back until the first quarter of 2010.

Under Masdar’s current schedule, an award of this contract is expected in the third quarter of 2010, with completion due in early 2014.

If the scheme is successful, it could set the tone for the major hydrocarbons producers in the region.

Climate change has become an increasingly politicised issue, and an international framework for the reduction of carbon emissions is set to be laid down at the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen on 7-18 December. China, a key trading partner for the GCC states, is pushing for strict new laws.