Live from Masdar: Flower in the Desert


Guest blogger William Becker is reporting live from Masdar blogging exclusively for CP.  Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.

ABU DHABI — It has been two years since the government of oil-rich Abu Dhabi began constructing what aspires to be the world’s first carbon neutral city.

The city is called Masdar. Since construction began in 2008, Masdar has been an exciting prospect for many of us who are attached to the ideal of sustainable development. Other, equally dedicated advocates of sustainability, however, have criticized Masdar.

For example, reviewing Masdar and other model cities being developed around the world, Sarah Goodyear asked this on Grist last year: If you want a sustainable city, why not fix the one you’ve got? It’s a reasonable question.

Other criticisms are that Masdar will be more of an elite gated community than an organic city; that it’s a greenfield project (although there must be a better term for undeveloped desert); and that is an expensive example of green washing by one of the world’s leading oil-exporting nations.

I toured Masdar yesterday and came away with some of my own opinions. But first, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll point out that I am part of a group of journalists from around the world who were brought to Abu Dhabi by the sponsors of the Masdar project, all expenses paid, to see the community and attend the World Future Energy Conference here this week.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Masdar, here is some background. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, the desert monarchy on the Persian Gulf that sits atop some of the world’s largest oil reserves.

Masdar is a project of the Mubadala Company, an investment vehicle of the Abu Dhabi government. “Masdar” refers not only to the model city under construction on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, but also to four other ventures including a graduate-level education institute, a $500 million capital fund that invests in renewable energy projects around the world, and a research program to capture and sequester carbon from natural gas.

If things go as planned and British architect Normal Foster’s design continues to materialize, 7,000 people will live in Masdar City within five years and another 12,000 people will work there.

At the moment, the project is still mostly an empty expanse of desert near Abu Dhabi’s airport. The exception is the Masdar Institute, a complex of six buildings that house research laboratories, classrooms and 167 graduate students in 102 residential apartments. The Institute’s faculty has been trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The complex is cooled by the wind, by positioning the six buildings to shade one another and by various design features that keep sunlight from entering the interior. A sheltered courtyard at the core of the complex is cooled by an experimental 44-meter tower covered with operable louvers that channel breezes downward through a mist of water.

Electricity comes from an 88,000 panel, $50 million, grid-connected photovoltaic farm nearby – the largest of its kind in the United Arab Emirates — along with PV panels on the roofs of the buildings. More solar is planned.

The original concept was to exclude all passenger cars within the city. With the maturation of electric vehicles, however, the developers are willing to allow electric automobiles and buses. One of the city’s transit systems already is operating – several electric-powered “Personal Rapid Transit” pods that look like oversized cold capsules. Each of the automated, electric-powered PRT’s carries four people and travels briskly through the complex on magnetic tracks. People can walk from point to point, too, but with summer temperatures reaching 120 degrees, even dedicated pedestrians probably won’t want to.

Inside the Institute’s labs, researchers are exploring how to make electricity from industrial and municipal wastewater, among other things. Elsewhere on the Masdar property are experimental renewable energy technologies in various stages of testing, including a solar trough system to cool buildings and an array of mirrors that will be used to explore different methods of generating power from concentrated sunlight. Geothermal cooling also is in the city’s plans.

There is a human experiment underway, too. It’s testing the willingness of the students who reside in Masdar City to change their attitudes and lifestyles to fulfill the city’s aspiration for carbon neutrality. Running up the slide of the courtyard cooling tower is a strip of LED lights that change colors to alert everyone when energy is being wasted somewhere. Water and energy meters tattle on exactly where, and perhaps who, is being wasteful. Some would call this Orwellian. Others would call it the Prius effect at city scale – instant feedback designed to modify behavior.

Now, about those criticisms. My impression is that Masdar City is more of a living laboratory than an organic community gussied up with fancy hardware. It’s something of a Biosphere without the dome, a real-time experiment in low-carbon living. As the change of mind about cars illustrates, the developers and technicians working on the city are actively monitoring and planning to incorporate the latest in energy and water technologies, keeping the city on the cutting edge of green.

Is there a place for this kind of development? Absolutely. Sarah and others are correct that we need massive investments in the world’s more organic cities, where more people are moving than ever before, often into slums without sanitation or drinkable water.

But the expensive and even exotic technologies being tested by the residents of Masdar City might one day mature into practical and affordable applications that purify and conserve water and provide billions of the world’s poorest people – as well as we Westerners – with carbon-free energy.

As for green washing, I came away from the tour persuaded that something very different is behind Abu Dhabi’s willingness to invest billions of dollars in an experimental city and in renewable energy projects elsewhere. Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates are ruled by the sons of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who founded the UAE and who is regarded here as a visionary environmentalist. Abu Dhabi’s forward-looking commitment to clean energy appears to be a sincere act of reverence for Sheikh Zayed by his heirs and a commitment to carry on his work.

The UAE has a long way to go. It has one of the world’s highest rates of per capital energy consumption. Consumers enjoy heavily subsidized energy costs. Masdar City is a laboratory for the UAE as well as the rest of us.

There’s a business case for energy innovation, too. Abu Dhabi is the fifth largest exporter of oil in the world; it wants to diversity its economy. Because oil supplies are finite and increasingly expensive to extract and because we are entering a carbon constrained world, the Sheiks along the Gulf want to be leading exporters of renewable energy technologies as well as oil and gas, and they want to find ways to decarbonizes their fossil fuels.

It might be that oil-producing countries are more anxious than the rest of us to adapt to what’s coming. It was a Saudi oil minister worried about the coming age of renewable energy who uttered the quote that appears in the PowerPoints of so many green evangelists today: The stone age didn’t end because it ran out of stones and the oil age won’t end because we ran out of oil. It will end because we find something better.

Back at the energy conference after the Masdar tour, I met the pioneer of another type. Bunker Roy is a 65-year-old Indian national who saw famine close-up in his youth. Highly intelligent and articulate, he could have been a lawyer or a diplomat. Instead, he dedicated his career to improving life in Indian’s villages. Roy’s has set up a “Barefoot College” that trains grandmothers in the developing world to build and maintain solar energy systems in rural villages.

While the researchers and graduate students at the Masdar Institute work in their clean labs, Roy provides 6 months of training to women who are 40-50 years old – the age of many grandmothers in rural India. They learn to fabricate solar lanterns and the components of solar electric systems. Solar energy is transformative, Roy says. Kids can study at night. Women who used to walk 10 kilometers to charge cell phones now can do it at home. Some people who left their villages in search of better lives come back.

With support from the Indian government, Roy has gone international. He says he has trained 150 grandmothers from 30 countries so far.

Which of these is the more worthy model of sustainable development: the Barefoot College or Masdar City? The world needs both. As a famous Chinese leader once said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.”

William Becker

12 Responses to Live from Masdar: Flower in the Desert

  1. fj3 says:

    Yep, PRT (personal rapid transit) got a bad name in the US. Wonder why?

    Maybe it’s something with the idea that it may be able to completely replace cars and especially those fossil-fueled; though current incarnations seem to lack practicality and come at a high price.

    Highly modular, single-person, hybrid human-electric mobility on-and-off systems providing last-mile connectivity seems to scale correctly.

  2. Robert says:

    The concept of Masadar City sounds good at first glance. But if the summer temperatures there are already near a 120 degrees, what is it going to be like in 10-20-30 years and who will want to live there?

    Also, how far above sea level is Masadar City? It seems like all of these Persian Gulf states should be looking at moving to higher ground.

  3. Bob Lang says:

    You are adding a “city” to existing cities. How can that be a climate-change solution.

    Typical “white elephant”.

  4. “The original concept was to exclude all passenger cars within the city. With the maturation of electric vehicles, however, the developers are willing to allow electric automobiles and buses.”

    They just eliminated the reason that I wanted to visit. Those electric cars may be carbon neutral, but they will still endanger pedestrians, take up most of the city’s public space, and make the city a much less pleasant place to be.

  5. Prokaryotes says:

    “I toured Masdar yesterday”

    Cool :)

    “allow electric automobiles and buses”

    Good! This should be an example for every and each City world wide and ofc Mandatory!

    “a strip of LED lights that change colors to alert everyone when energy is being wasted”


    “As for green washing”

    Jun 10, 2010
    Masdar CEO: No Scaling Back Of $22B Masdar City

    Oct 10, 2010
    Masdar City scales back energy, transport goals

    Masdar City has scaled back plans to produce all of its energy on site and has extended its deadline for completion to 2020, the developer revealed today.

    As part of a revised master plan for the US$22 billion eco-city, Masdar has said that it is unlikely that the city will be powered solely by on site power, but will remain solely reliable on renewable energy. The developer has also limited plans for a city-wide network of electric cars, which were designed to shuttle residents between their homes and offices.

    The whole city was due to be finished by 2016 but that date has been pushed back to between 2020 and 2025, according to UAE newspaper The National.

  6. Prokaryotes says:

    Actually the project is scaled back every few month!

    Abu Dhabi scales back Masdar City plans

    Published: Mar 17, 2010

    17 March 2010 – Masdar City, the “zero carbon” community being built on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, is to be scaled back.

    According to The Nation, Masdar City will keep its goals of being carbon neutral and producing zero waste to landfills, but there will be fewer buildings, they will be taller and built over a longer period of time. Masdar officials originally aimed to bring the whole city, with a floor space of 5.5m square metres, to market by 2016.

    Now the goal is to complete 360 000 sq metres by the end of 2013, and only if executives are satisfied that there would be an adequate market, according to Alan Frost, the director of the Masdar City property development unit.

    Fucking Oil Addicts!

  7. Solar Jim says:

    It is Lord Norman Foster, the architect of this ecocity, who has caused the demolition of historic, structurally sound, appropriate scale buildings on historic Whitney Avenue in the Connecticut city of New Haven on property owned by Yale University. An architectural guidebook describes one of these as “palatial.” This is not “sustainability” but destruction and climate insecurity, and ran counter to published local planning documents, in my opinion. His planned replacement might be described as an ugly large glass box (subject to New England winters no less).

    The idea that this firm promotes “sustainability” is like saying a sustained atomic fission reaction is sustainable energy that is “clean.”

    As far as “the project is still mostly an empty expanse of desert near Abu Dhabi’s airport.” Well, you mean it is just poor little nature at rest and would be better paved over by humans? Perhaps the author should sail back home, literally, so he won’t contribute to global flooding and deaths from financing another flight of an aviation climate change machine (powered by petroleum). Have a safe voyage.

  8. catman306 says:

    Here’s an idea that works, ’cause this is the Chinese bullet train. Take a ride, 1000 km in 3 hrs. Today, if you’re in Guangzhou or Wuhan.

  9. Bill Becker says:

    To clarify, my conclusion that Masdar is, or promises to be, a useful laboratory for low-carbon design and technology is not an endorsement of Lord Foster or his other projects. Nor does it bother me that the project will be smaller and take longer than originally planned. Nor that it will occupy a relatively small expanse of desert since there’s plenty of it and we’re not likely to run out, given that global warming will produce more. I think it will be a useful experiment even if it spontaneously combusts in 20 years due to rising temperatures, or floats away due to a rising Gulf. As I tried to convey in my post, I came away from Masdar thinking of it as a lab rather than a city. I do feel badly about the carbon emissions involved in my air travel. Even carbon offsets and 20 hours in an economy seat on United will not be punishment enough.

  10. Rick DeLong says:

    Definitely, Masdar is a wonderful laboratory and experiment providing transferable know-how for the development of more sustainable cities elsewhere.

    With a pricetag of $22 billion to house 50 thousand residents, each resident’s share of infrastructure will cost nearly $500,000 to build. This money will be invested in fossil-fuel powered processes and production. As a kind of afterthought, for some period of time after completion, the city will be self-sustaining — until materials wear out and need replacing. Furthermore, the environment the city is located in is basically unliveable due to heat and dryness. So the word “sustainable” can only be applied here in a very narrow sense…

    Still, as a kind of scientific laboratory, the endeavor has great value in terms of finding ways for large numbers of people to live in extremely inhospitable environments in a somewhat sustainable fashion.

  11. Solar Jim says:

    Thanks for your response Bill Becker.

    The fossil pusher’s hubris is overwhelming (me and the planet).

    How about a story on the concept of reconstruction of cities like Detroit based on re-installation of a streetcar system next? This could discuss urban agriculture, attractive urban transit and net-zero/carbon neutral economic reconstruction toward elimination of all fossil burning requirements (especially for those who do not wish to obtain heights of six miles off the ground).

    Have a safe voyage.

  12. The initiative is laudable.

    Let us examine what ‘Carbon Neutral’ City is likely.

    ‘ Defining a ‘Carbon Neutral’ City
    WorldChanging Team, 22 Feb 10( WORLD CHANGING CHANGE YOUR THINKING by Justus Stewart and Pete Erickson).

    “Last November, Alex Steffen gave a two-night talk at Seattle’s Town Hall. In those talks, he issued a challenge to the government and the residents of Seattle: to be bigger and bolder with our goals; to stake our claim as the environmental and civic leaders of the bright green future. He challenged us to conceive of Seattle as the first carbon neutral city in North America, and to get there by 2030.
    Since then, the idea has spread, and been debated, among Seattle’s civic leaders and innovative thinkers. One question that moved immediately to the fore is this: What does carbon neutral even mean? A critical first step in pursuing ‘carbon neutrality’ is defining it.
    Of the many considerations that go into defining carbon neutrality for a city the size of Seattle, a few stand out for their significance.
    1. How does carbon neutrality relate to the global limits that scientists warn us we must not exceed – 350 ppm CO2 (or 2 degrees C over pre-industrial levels)?
    2. Would a city have to actually quit emitting greenhouse gases, or could it use offsets (purchase carbon credits) to reach its goal?
    3. Are we trying to account for only emissions that occur within city limits, or all emissions for which Seattleites are responsible?
    This is wonky stuff; catnip for the carbon emissions accounting crowd (yes, they exist, and yes, there are technically enough of them to constitute a crowd…). Let’s take them one at a time.
    How does Seattle’s goal relate to the global limits that scientists warn us we must not exceed – for example, 350 ppm (or 2 degrees C)?
    Well over 1,000 cities in the US have adopted greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals. Many of those cities, including Seattle, express their goals in alignment with a science-based goal of an 80% reduction (from 1990 levels) by 2050. This “80 by 50” target is reflected in some national policies as well. However, we often lose sight of the fact that this is a global goal, not a local one. Meeting an aggressive global goal (whether 350 ppm, 450 ppm, or whatever is required to limit warming to 2 degrees C) will require the rich countries of the world to reduce their emissions at least 80% by 2050 — and in addition, to help finance emission reductions in poor nations. If we only hit 80% of our own emissions by mid-century — and don’t help poor nations invest in clean energy and other emission-reducing projects — then we overshoot our global emissions target, with potentially devastating consequences.
    What does this mean? It means we may want to define carbon neutrality in a way that accounts for both our actual emissions and our fair share of global emissions. This does not have to be guesswork: frameworks exist to apportion emissions according to measures of historical responsibility and capacity to act. These frameworks – often called burden sharing or carbon budgeting — suggest that to contribute equitably to a 2 degree goal, the U.S. may need to take responsibility for emission reductions greater than its total emissions. One calculation found that the U.S. would need to go well below zero (substantially “carbon negative”) by 2030.
    The reasoning behind a burden-sharing approach is simple: because wealthy nations (and their wealthy cities) are responsible for the lion’s share of historical emissions, which helped fuel our prosperity and now threaten the whole planet, we must take greater action to reduce those emissions than poor countries with less responsibility and less capacity to act. After all, we cannot ethically (or even legally) restrict emissions from developing nations if it means they remain in poverty. If they are to reduce their emissions, we must help fund their cleaner path to prosperity. That’s point two.
    Does the City have to actual quit emitting greenhouse gases, or can it use offsets (purchase carbon credits) to reach its goal?
    While carbon emissions in Seattle can be reduced significantly from their current levels, it is unrealistic to actually stop local emissions completely. Doing so would be prohibitively expensive. In terms of achieving global targets, then, it is at some point more cost effective to reduce emissions in other places than here in Seattle. Furthermore, as described above, we may want to accept a greater share of global responsibility for emission reductions, perhaps going beyond zero, and financing emission reductions (likely as offset credits) in poor nations. But how do we determine where the threshold should be between our own reductions and those we fund elsewhere as offsets? How deep of a reduction should Seattle make in its own emissions? Considerations include whether to honor Seattle’s existing 80% by 2050 goal, cost-effectiveness, global responsibility, the value of branding Seattle as a global leader in green innovation, and other in-city benefits promoted by advocates of carbon neutrality.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India