Masdar City: an expensive experiment in urban sustainability

It may seem strange that the United Arab Emirates, which boasts the world's seventh largest oil and natural gas reserves, is pushing ahead with a very expensive experiment in renewable energy and urban sustainability.

But Masdar City is intended to become the world's first carbon-neutral city. As a story from AOL Energy asks: Is it just a high-cost gamble made possible by oil wealth, or an enlightened path to sustainable urban development that could also help fight climate change? The answer, as the story says, is likely to be somewhere in the middle.

At completion Masdar City -- named after Masdar, a subsidiary of the UAE government's investment arm Mubadala Development Company -- will be a technology cluster with research laboratories and housing and commercial spaces for 40,000 permanent residents plus another 50,000 commuters. Power will be provided entirely by renewable energy with 20% of it generated on site.

It's a multi-faceted project for a number of reasons. The technologies that are created in the project could find their way to other areas of the developing and developed world to help governments meet greenhouse gas reduction targets. Also, population growth in the Middle East is escalating quickly and the region desperately needs energy efficient housing, cooling, water desalination and renewable energy. And surges in energy demand at home could begin competing with oil and gas exports so critical to the economies of Gulf area countries, so in that sense Masdar City could be considered a hedge against that possibility.

Here are a few features of the Masdar City project:

  • Developers are incorporating state of the art building materials, passive and intelligent design and ancient traditional Islamic architectural elements toward extremely high levels of energy efficiency. Passive building technology represents 60-80% of the city's energy savings, the AOL story note.
  • A number of design elements contribute to energy reductions in Masdar City's library, including maximized airflow and taking advantage of cooled breezes and circular stairs to help maintain air circulation.
  • Electric buses and cars and other clean energy vehicles will provide transportation, and an electric car trial is underway featuring Mitsubishi Motors' i-MiEV five-door hatchbacks.
  • A solar array built earlier provides more power than needed, so the excess is sent to Abu Dhabi's public power grid. Masdar is working with other companies to create a solution for the blowing dust and sand that collects on the solar panels and causes their efficiency to drop.

And... it doesn't hurt that some of the world's major energy technology players like GE, Siemens and SK Energy will build their regional headquarters in Masdar City.

To get an idea of the magnitude of the project, a total project cost estimate is $18-$19 billion, or as one official understated, "It's an expensive experiment." But as the AOL story explained, if the project produces new technology that is cost-effective and can be used in other parts of the world, it is likely to be thought of as a success, despite the initial cost. The opening date for the project, initially expected to be 2019, has been put off to 2025.