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