Abu Dhabi is beginning to emerge as a solar energy powerhouse in the 21st century, after powering its way through the 20th century on petroleum. The tiny Emirate still has plans to continue producing oil well into the future, but it is diversifying its economy and that of the United Arab Emirates to deploy three other critical global resources: collaborative innovation and water, in addition to renewable energy.
The state-supported Masdar Corporation is the nexus of those three efforts, which includes the new Solar Hub, and it has just come out with its 2015 Annual Report. CleanTechnica also had a chance to visit earlier this month during the annual Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, walk through Masdar’s urban sustainability showplace Masdar City, and talk to some of the key players.
Strolling Through The Future At Masdar City
Abu Dhabi’s solar efforts are already paying off, as its enormous Shams 1 concentrating solar power plant has exceeded expectations for the second year in a row despite its location in the harsh western desert region of the Emirate. The successful demonstration clears the way for additional solar investments domestically, as well as for exporting solar technology solutions in similarly challenging environments.
We’ve also discussed how a walk through Masdar City gave us a first hand look at — and feel for — low-tech energy efficiency strategies that draw on traditional Arab concepts to create cooling effects in the hot desert climate (the city also uses distributed rooftop solar and an on-site ground mounted utility scale solar array).
During our tour, Masdar City Director Anthony Mallows and Chris Wan, the city’s Design Manager, also gave us a feel for the way Masdar City is channeling and amplifying brain power.
Mallows started us off by noting that Masdar City is designed to demonstrate how development can proceed with a low or neutral carbon footprint, “doing more with less.” To that end, Masdar City is more than a collection of buildings:
…[we are] building a community of people, invention, and minds that look to the future…who actually are going to invent the future through science, technology, innovation, and cooperation.
Wan explained that the collaborative, environment-dependent approach extends to the development of Masdar City itself, and is intended to be replicated globally:
The approach that we take is totally relevant (to other environments)…the environment dictates how to build. How to work in an integrated, collaborative manner is applicable to wherever you build.
Masdar City residents are also part of the experiment. At this point of development, only the first of eight planned neighborhoods have been completed, but this one happens to be home to the Masdar Institute of Technology and the first occupants of the residential buildings are primarily post-graduate students.
With that in mind, Mallows and Wan have been “pleasantly surprised” at the energy efficiency data coming out of the residential buildings. The buildings have outperformed expectations based on a benchmark of average residential energy use, and the consensus is that the students are particularly tuned in to taking full advantage of energy efficiency features. The first non-student residential buildings are now under construction so it will be interesting to see what that data looks like once they’re occupied.
Yes, There Is Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Mallows explained that before Masdar City began development, the assumption was that “higher efficiency involves higher costs.” Part of the aim of Masdar City is to prove that cost and energy efficiency are not necessarily linked.
So far, experience is bearing that out. Although the first buildings constructed at Masdar were laboratories, which almost necessarily involve higher costs, Mallows pointed out that the new LEED Platinum Siemens building cost no more than a conventional building.
As Wan elaborated, one important factor is the exterior fire escape stairs. While perhaps not aesthetically optimal, they are money-savers that enabled the use of more expensive materials for indoor spaces:
“Architectural features that save resources, save money,” Wan explained. “They also lead to a different aesthetic.”
Those flaps, by the way, are designed to fend off unwanted solar gain. They shade exterior walkways leading to the fire escapes.
Blurring The Lines
By integrating the Masdar Institute into the DNA of Masdar City rather than locating it on a separate campus, the city’s planners have also set the stage for a a new paradigm of urban development that incorporates mixed use. As Mallows explained regarding “clean” manufacturing and engineering:
….traditional cities segregate land use. Masdar City blurs traditional land use patterns, and it will transform the regulatory environment…
That mixed use includes the on-site ground-mounted solar array and other clean tech projects taking place outside of controlled laboratory buildings. One such project at Masdar City is the development of a renewable fuel production system based on mangroves and other halophytes (plants that can thrive in salty water).
Another project we toured was the “Beam Down” concentrating solar system pictured at the top of this post. One of only three such solar systems in the world, it is designed to store energy in the form of heated oil in a “concrete battery.”
If you scroll up and take another look at the somewhat complicated arrangement between the legs of the Beam Down solar structure, you can see a small tank. That’s actually a salt tank for a molten salt solar storage project also being conducted at the Beam Down facility. The oil system is underneath, and when the researchers want to test that system they slide the salt tank out of the way.
We also had a chance to sit down with Wan later that week for a one-on-one conversation, and he provided a fuller picture of the design concepts at work in Masdar City:
Our master plan is all about what you feel, all about the environment.
A lot of old cities had many generations to develop the way they feel, through trial and error over a long period of time. With old cities you had no modern air conditioning and harsh climates…
…at Masdar City we concentrate on the way we work, the way we collaborate, and the design and construction processes that we deal with…we work out the best way to make sustainability commercially viable.
Wan further underscored that the message of commercial viability is the driving force behind Masdar City:
I continue to deliver one of the hardest messages in all of sustainable development. People say, “Masdar City is fantastic, but I don’t think we can afford to do that,” and I keep repeating the same message, that “we can’t afford to be sustainable” is a contradiction.
Simply ask yourself, is the most fuel efficient car the most expensive car? It’s a market driven decision, to separate luxury from efficiency.
About That Petroleum…(And Nukes, Too)
As we noted at the beginning of this piece, Abu Dhabi covers a small area but it happened to be in the right place at the right time to be a big player in the oil-saturated 20th century. The United Arab Emirates owns about six percent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves, making it the seventh-largest producer in the world, and Abu Dhabi accounts for about 95 percent of that.
With Masdar City, the Shams 1 concentrating solar power plant, and a series of cutting edge desalination demo projects under way (we’ll talk about those in a later post), Abu Dhabi is poised to leverage three resources that are playing a critical role in the 21st century: innovation, solar energy, and water.
On the other hand, Abu Dhabi also appears to be on track to keep the UAE’s oil reserves flowing, and even to increase its output.
That’s a bit of a complicated effort, involving new pipelines to avoid bottlenecks and security issues at the Strait of Hormuz, as well as an increase in natural gas imports for use at oil fields.
The end result, though, is that while global producers and oil services companies are floundering — marked by waves of layoffs numbering in the thousands — UAE’s relatively “easy” oil and vigorous supply lines could enable it to keep pumping at will.
In other words, UAE’s drive for a diversified economy is not intended to push petroleum aside, at least not in the near term. The opposite is the case: diversification will act as a cushion, enabling Abu Dhabi and the UAE to continue producing oil regardless of the drop in the global market, while avoiding the economic calamity faced by other oil-dependent states.
That may seem counterproductive in the context of the historic COP21 Paris climate agreement. However, if other producers continue to drop out — and if electric vehicles and renewable energy continue to replace petroleum globally — the result would not necessarily be an increase in global oil consumption.
As for nuclear energy…
…that’s on UAE’s to-do list, too.
By the way, our visit to Abu Dhabi and Masdar City was courtesy of Masdar (the company). The schedule of events included an update on the UAE’s new research program for rain enhancement, so we’ll bring you some notes about that in a later post.
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All photos by Tina Casey.
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