Distributed Solar Vs. Utility Scale At Masdar City

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Distributed solar energy has become a major force in the clean tech field, but making room for solar equipment can be a challenge for urban planners dealing with competing uses for rooftops and open space. That’s one among many lessons learned at Masdar City, the urban sustainability showcase now under development in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Masdar City’s original goal of subsisting on solar within its borders has morphed into a more inclusive renewable energy model. So…is that a problem?

solar energy storage Masdar City

10 Megawatts of Distributed Solar Energy, Good…

Masdar City currently has a 10-megawatt solar farm on site, but according to city planners that will most likely be the city’s only large scale, ground mounted solar facility. Only one of several planned neighborhoods in Masdar City has been built out so far, and as development proceeds the city will rely increasingly on outside sources.

That is a huge problem, according to a recent article in The Guardian that has been making the rounds of the Intertubes. In blisteringly purple prose, the article takes Masdar City to task for its shift in focus.

You have to dig through a thicket of modifiers to get to the point, but keep digging past the first 20 or so paragraphs and you’ll find this nugget, citing Masdar City’s design manager Chris Wan:

“The original aim was to be net zero, yes, but that was when we were looking at the city in isolation,” Wan said.

He maintained it was important to look at Masdar City within the context of the other renewable energy holdings of the parent company. Among Mubadala’s other holdings, Masdar Clean Energy is developing the Shams solar farm.

Way to bury the lede, right? The big picture is that Masdar City now has some planning leeway because its corporate parent has become more active in the renewable energy field. That’s not a particularly click-baity angle, but it’s a significant development in the right direction when compared to the initial focus of the Mubadala Development Company.

…100 Megawatts Better

Mubadala was created in 2002 as the state-supported instrument tasked with diversifying the Abu Dhabi economy out of oil dependency. At that time the global commercial solar energy sector was still a tiny speck, and a core part of Mubadala’s initial focus was establishing a subsidiary to bring more natural gas into the Emirate from Qatar. Carrying forth an ambitious nuclear energy initiative was another important focus of activity.

The Mubadala corporate team must have soon realized that it had a golden opportunity make its mark in renewable energy. The US had been the global leader during the late 20th century, but asleep-at-the-wheel energy policies during the Bush Administration helped to create a vacancy in the global solar marketplace as the 21st century got under way.

In 2006 Mubadala launched Masdar to handle its new focus on clean tech investment. Masdar formed a research partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2007, and in 2008 the development of Masdar City got under way with the new Masdar Institute of Science and Technology as its anchor tenant. Here’s the original plan:

…Masdar City, the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste, car-free city. Electricity will be generated by photovoltaic panels, while cooling will be provided via concentrated solar power. Water will be provided through a solar-powered desalination plant. Landscaping within the city and crops grown outside the walled city will be irrigated with grey water and treated waste water produced by the city’s water treatment plant.

With the Masdar Institute as leverage, Abu Dhabi has become the nexus for global clean tech initiatives, such as the World Future Energy Summit and the annual Sustainability Week.

Last month CleanTechnica visited Abu Dhabi for Sustainability Week 2016 as a guest of Masdar, and we toured Masdar City with Chris Wan and the city’s Director, Anthony Mallows. The full context of the five-day visit makes it clear why Masdar City’s solar plans were modified.

As a global research and innovation hub, Masdar City is intimately connected to broader development plans for the vicinity. That includes an enormous new airport and an enormous new diplomatic district where scores of enormous new embassies are in various stages of construction, all within handy reach of coastal resorts and inland recreation destinations.

From a land use perspective, having all this human activity buzzing around in close proximity has strong positives, including transportation efficiencies. Booking some of that land up with vast tracts of solar panels makes little sense.

Prioritization is especially critical for land use within Masdar City’s borders. As the home of the Masdar Institute, the growing city will need more room for future R&D projects, such as a compact concentrating solar-plus-storage research facility on site (you can see the Masdar Institute buildings cluster in the background):

Masdar City solar Abu Dhabi

In the context of this cutting edge research, plastering mature photovoltaic technology all over the landscape of Masdar City makes little sense.

To underscore the point, Bloomberg reports that next week a new bio-research facility will be opening at Masdar City early in March.

Our tour group also discussed potentials for solar parking lot canopies and other built-in alternatives with Wan and Mallows. Their view is that from an investment perspective, the economics of small scale solar don’t stack up against the economics of building utility scale solar elsewhere in Abu Dhabi, at least not under the current state of technology.

Our group’s discussion of building energy efficiency is also relevant. Wan and Mallows have been “pleasantly surprised” by the energy efficiency performance of Masdar Institute’s residential halls real-world use, but they also noted that Masdar City’s mixed use goals include research facilities and the potential for small scale manufacturing, both of which can involve an increase in overall building energy consumption.

From this perspective, the preferred solution is to build utility-scale solar facilities in the desert:

Shams1 CSP Project_Panorama

The photo above is a panoramic shot of the “Shams solar farm” that the Guardian article mentions in passing, so let’s fill in some pertinent details.

Shams 1 is a new concentrating solar power plant out in Abu Dhabi’s western desert region, far from Masdar City. At 100 megawatts, Shams 1 is ten times larger than the city’s on-site solar farm. Shams 1 covers about 2.5 square kilometers (a little less than one square mile), so it would take up more than two-thirds of the six square kilometers assigned to Masdar City.

Shams 1 just concluded its second full year of operations and it has outperformed expectations, a significant achievement considering the challenges of operating a solar facility in the harsh environment of the western desert.

Abu Dhabi has plenty of open land in which to put a whole series of Shams, and that seems to be the idea. On our bus trip out to the facility, we observed the same frantic pace of development as in the vicinity of Masdar City, including new roads, new industrial facilities rising up in the horizon, and of course, new transmission lines.

Masdar City By The Numbers

As mentioned in the Guardian article, Masdar City’s development timeline stalled in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crisis. However, things seem to be getting back on track. Here are some recent numbers provided by Masdar:

Approximately 2,000 people work at Masdar City, and the development receives 2,300 visitors each week.

446 Masdar Institute students from more than 60 countries live on site; MI has 96 faculty members from over 30 countries.

There are 11 restaurants and coffee outlets at Masdar City, with another two set to open soon. The City also has two food stores, two banks, a post office, a launderette, and a telecom outlet.

The Personal Rapid Transit system (PRT) carried 32,844 passengers per month in 2015, an increase of 14.8% compared with the previous year.

In 2014, more than 600 staff members moved into Siemens’ new Middle East head office.

The Masdar City site occupies 160,000 square meters; another 80,000 sqm is under construction and over 400,000 sqm is in the committed pipeline.

As for that new bio-research facility, expect to hear more from CleanTechnica and our sister site Planetsave about that project — it involves Boeing and Honeywell, no less.

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Photos (solar energy storage and CSP demo at Masdar City) by Tina Casey.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3297 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey