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Arab City Powered Entirely On Clean Energy

The success of Masdar City offers hope for regions facing rising temperatures worldwide.

When one thinks of Masdar City, a suburb of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one has to appreciate the irony: The world’s greenest city may one day emerge from a place where little of anything green currently exists.

Work began in 2008 on what was envisioned as a $22 billion, four-square-mile model of sustainability: An actual city built from scratch—one capable of housing 50,000 people and supporting nearly 2,000 businesses—powered entirely on clean energy. According to Foster + Partners, the architectural firm that designed the city, the goal was to “advance the development of renewable energy and clean-technology solutions for a life beyond oil.” 

Masdar City - rendering 300

It’s a bold statement, considering that the UAE alone has 6 percent of the world’s oil reserves (the U.S., by comparison, has 4 percent), and 95 percent of those are in Abu Dhabi, according to the “BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2020.”

But it’s also a look at the future. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and by 2050 this number will increase to nearly 70 percent. Cities will soon account for 90 percent of global population growth as well as about 75 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and 75 percent of energy consumption. 

Water will be another struggle. Only 5 percent of the UAE land is suitable for growing crops—there is little potable water. Groundwater provides only about 51 percent of the UAE’s water supply, with the rest covered by desalination (37 percent) and reclaimed water (12 percent) for irrigation.

Yet, with development comes increased water and energy demand. In the UAE, population growth is expected to increase water need 30 percent by 2030.

Water Conservation, Energy Efficiency a Must

This is why, according to Foster + Partners, the bar has been set pretty high for Masdar City.

Masdar apartments 2 upward-300Buildings in Masdar City are designed to be at least 40 percent more energy- and water-efficient than conventional buildings. 

Offices and homes are equipped with smart devices that reduce the water and electricity consumption of users. For example, there are no light switches or water taps within the city; instead, motion sensors are used. This technique is expected to save up to 50 percent of the energy and resources that would otherwise be exhausted by the inhabitants, according to a report at re-thinkingthefuture.com.

Electricity comes from the city’s own 10 megawatt (MW) photovoltaic plant and a network of 1 MW solar panels on rooftops throughout the area. Combined, they produce approximately 17,500 megawatt hours (MWhs) of electricity annually, displacing more than 7,000 tons of carbon emissions per year. 

All water used in Masdar comes from desalination, rain and the treatment of wastewater. UAE has also begun research into use of hyper dehumidifiers that turn moisture in the air into drinking water for public consumption. 

According to a report in Daily Mail, 20 of the dehumidifiers can produce 6,700 liters of fresh water per day under the right weather conditions. Buildings are constructed with low-carbon cement and 90 percent recycled aluminum, as well as other locally sourced and verified materials. Ninety percent of construction waste is reused or recycled.

Smart City, Smart Technology Controls

Fuel-burning cars are forbidden in Masdar City. To eliminate vehicular carbon emissions, a fleet of driverless, electric-powered pod cars—similar to the 1993 Sylvester Stallone film “Demolition Man”—transports people within the development, although much of the travel can be done by walking due the city’s small size. 

The geographic radius and design of the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system has changed over the years, largely due to continued advancement in technology and cost-cutting measures. But PRT has shuttled more than 2.5 million passengers since its launch in 2010, and displaced CO2 emissions equivalent to running 70 cars for a whole year, according to Masdar, the UAE-government owned renewable energy company that serves neighboring Abu Dhabi. 

“This achievement stands as a true testament to our culture of innovation,” says Yousef Ahmed Baselaib, Masdar’s executive director of strategy and corporate development. “The popularity of the PRT demonstrates how functional sustainable urban transport development is paving the way for cities of the future.”

Weather conditions have also been taken into account. Masdar City is in the middle of the Abu Dhabi Desert, where the temperature regularly tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer. In addition to a perimeter wall designed to keep strong winds and sandstorms in check, its streets are narrow and oriented so as to take advantage of air currents, according to a report in Tungsteno. 

Public spaces can also be cooled naturally, by as much as 40 degrees. “The city has a 147-foot wind tower that redirects air from the top of buildings to pedestrian areas,” the report notes. “In this way, it channels fresh air currents along the city streets.”

Energy Smart City Lures Residents

Completion of Masdar City was expected by 2014, but the recession, pandemic, and other factors have pushed that date to 2030. Only about 3,000 people live there now, but that total is expected to double by 2023, according to the company Masdar. The city has also attracted the attention of roughly 400 energy-related companies, including General Electric, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Schneider Electric, and Siemens.

“Hard lessons have been learned, but despite coverage of difficulties in construction and development and slow growth in residency as the project evolved, the initiative kept going,” Masdar CEO Mohamed Jameel Al Ramahi told Forbes magazine. “What matters when dealing in entirely new approaches to solving problems is understanding that there will be roadblocks, but there is always a way around a problem.”