Masdar City: “Test Bed For Innovations In Fuel Efficiency & Renewable Energy,” + More

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Originally published on Green Building Elements.

Sweltering in the hot desert sun, Masdar City sits under a global microscope at the nexus of rising clean technology and the development of sustainable urban life in the glaring light of climate change.

Conceived on a zero-moisture stretch of barren desert sand in Abu Dhabi, UAE, the zero-carbon, zero-waste settlement of Masdar City has diligently sustained itself through every struggle and step of progress.

Proposed masterplan of Masdar City. Credit:
Proposed masterplan of Masdar City. Credit:

Masdar City: A Living, Striving Test Case for Earth’s Future

As the warming effects of global climate change guide human needs and technologies toward more protective living environments, Masdar City appears on the leading edge of adaptive strategies. The successes and struggles of Masdar City are providing a living, striving test case for Earth’s future.

Taking a close look at the technologies and strategies under manipulation in this unique city, Susan Lee and her colleagues from UK’s University of Birmingham School of Civil Engineering lay out their findings in a recent study.

Lee states that Masdar’s contribution as a “test bed for innovations in fuel efficiency and renewable energy is more important than ever before.” She and fellow co-authors explain, “Ready access to ‘clean’ energy is essential if we wish to maintain our current way of life without compromising our wellbeing or the carrying capacity of the planet.”

A cleantech test case for sustainable urban living. Credit:
A cleantech test case for sustainable urban living. Credit:

Minimizing the Sun’s Glare & Heat

Impressed with the overall layout of the city, Lee notes: “The streets and buildings of Masdar City are specially designed to be energy efficient. In line with traditional Arab design, Masdar City’s shaded paths and narrow streets are designed to create a pleasant space for walking in the region’s hot climate.”

Lined with buildings not exceeding five stories, and combined with the presence of street-level “solar canopies,” roads receive protective shade for pedestrians throughout the city.

The main buildings, such as the IRENA Global Headquarters, the Siemens Building, and the Incubator Building, “are highly insulated and energy efficient, with three quarters of their hot water produced using solar energy. They also have angled facades to minimise the amount of glare and heat from the sun.”

IRENA Global Headquarters. Credit:
IRENA Global Headquarters. Credit:

Maximizing the Use of Electric Vehicles

Moving from innovative strategies for maximizing pedestrian comfort, Susan Lee and her colleagues point next to the innovative transportation system in the city. From a car park at the city’s outer boundary, personal rapid transit (PRT) vehicles (driverless pods) are utilized to “ferry commuters” to and from all points within the city.

Electric buses offer access to and from Masdar’s residential areas, and a number of electric cars are also publicly available. Running on 16 kWh lithium-ion batteries capable of reaching speeds of up to 130 kph (80 mph), these public electric vehicles can be recharged at convenient stations throughout Masdar.

Personal rapid transit podcar, Masdar City. Credit: Wikipedia commons
Personal rapid transit podcar, Masdar City. Credit: Wikipedia commons

Innovative Renewable Energy Initiatives

Also impressed with the proliferation of sustainable technologies throughout Masdar, Lee cites such innovative renewable energy initiatives as a 100 kW thermal power plant, solar cooling, and geothermal cooling projects.

However, “Perhaps the most ambitious project,” notes Lee, “is Shams 1, a stand-alone 2.5km², 100 MW Concentrated Solar Power plant.” Built at an estimated cost of £453 million, or $600 million, Lee confirms that SHAMS 1 “displaces 175,000 tonnes of CO₂ annually – equivalent to the emissions of 29,000 UK homes.”

The city’s 45-meter-high (147.6 feet) wind tower also received special mention by Lee and her team of British civil engineers, inspired by the modern use of traditional Arab technology. Cool breezes from higher up are redirected down the tower to the pedestrian level, displacing and pushing hot air up and away from the courtyard and ground floors of the surrounding buildings.

45m wind tower passively cools by capturing and redirecting breezes into the courtyard. Credit: Masdar via
45m wind tower redirects breezes downward, cooling the courtyard. Credit: Masdar via

One of the Most Sustainable Cities in the World

With sustainability uppermost in mind, Masdar’s goal has always been to become one of the most sustainable cities in the world. Every aspect of urban planning and architecture has addressed this goal, finessed with the desire to appeal to the aesthetic senses of its residents.

In fact, according to The Future Build, several overriding characteristics define the city’s innovative design:

High Quality of Life: Masdar City is designed to provide the highest quality of life with the lowest environmental impact, in part to demonstrate that environmentally responsible living does not imply hardship.

Integrated: There are no separate zones for industry or culture. The university and traditional business elements are embedded in the heart of the community, as are entertainment and leisure facilities. Residents and commuters living and working here will find everything they need close at hand.

Vibrant Urban Realm: Public spaces are as important as the buildings in Masdar City, with a variety of tactics used to activate these spaces. As a result, the city is a place where streets and squares facilitate interaction and engagement with fellow residents, commuters and visitors.

Low Rise, High Density: These two elements are central to a low-energy urban community for a variety of reasons, including lower energy use on transportation (both between and within buildings) and reduced heating/cooling loads.

Pedestrian Friendly: A pedestrian city on the pedestrian level of the street allows buildings to be closer together, thereby providing greater overshading and a cooler street environment.

Optimally Oriented: The city and street grid are oriented on a southeast–northwest axis, thereby providing some shading at the street level throughout the day, minimising thermal gain on building walls and facilitating the flow of cooling breezes through the city.

Masdar City Tour guide. Click image to see open an enlarged, easy-to-read version in a new tab. Credit:
Masdar City Tour guide. Click image to open an enlarged, easy-to-read gallery in a new tab. Credit:

Providing Inspiration to Cities Around the World

Anthony “Tony” Mallows, Executive Director of Masdar City, states that the city “is a template for sustainable urban development, and its evolution is taking place in partnership with a growing community of developers, investors and private sector companies.”

Mallows adds, “This community is actively contributing to and benefitting from the sustainable building practices and advanced technologies deployed in the realisation of the City, whether it’s the application of renewable energy, energy- and water-saving processes, or the use of low-carbon cement and recycled metals.”

Susan Lee and her colleagues agree with Mallows on the value of Masdar as a template but recognize some significant differences affecting implementation of many of the city’s strategies in other locations.

“While Masdar City has enabled the development of state-of-the-art, energy-saving buildings and exciting new technologies in a hostile, arid environment,” Lee states, “not all of the solutions on show would work for other cities.” She explains, “while Masdar City started with an empty site, established cities have to work around existing infrastructure.”

Lee continues, “Even so, as the global climate changes, warmer summers are expected to become more likely, so any case studies which show how buildings can be modified to mitigate the heat will be useful.”

“In this way, and many more,” Lee concludes, “Masdar City will continue to provide other cities around the world with inspiration to help them become more robust, resilient and sustainable in the face of global challenges.”

View More Inspiration from Masdar City

Below are a couple of videos conveying a great sense of Masdar City’s evolution and the inspiration it is offering to the future sustainable cities of the world.

Also, don’t miss Zach’s awesome post on CleanTechnica, “Masdar’s Continued Evolution.” (He made his own videos to go along with it!)

earthrise – Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Plan (by Al Jazeera English, uploaded in 2011):

Masdar City Welcome Video (by Masdar VideosChannel, published in 2014):

Is this the greenest city in the world? (by CNN, published in 2014):

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Aisha Abdelhamid

is a freelance lifestyle and environmental science writer currently living in Vancouver, BC. Her interests include environmental conservation, climate science, renewable energy, faith-based environmental activism, green building, creative lifestyles, and healthy living.

Aisha Abdelhamid has 59 posts and counting. See all posts by Aisha Abdelhamid