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November 18, 2009

Masdar, the perfect green city

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

Dr. Mohamed ElmasryIt's one thing for a city to know that it must become green to work; it's quite another to persuade governments to put money into green city planning.

Unless cities are open to change, they risk becoming trapped in a rigid pattern that limits future possibilities.

Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, is one city that has decided to invest in the future.

Located 20 km to the southeast is Masdar City, a 2.5-square mile area that will be the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste city. It’s the world’s most ambitious sustainable development project, and its success will help us understand how all future cities should be built.

Dr. Sultan al-Jaber, CEO of Masdar (Arabic for “Source”) says the goal is to position the city to be a research and development hub for new energy technologies. “We want to promote development and commercialization of innovative technologies in renewable and sustainable energies as well as sustainable design,” he said.

Masdar City will incorporate traditional Gulf architecture to create low-energy buildings that make use of natural air conditioning from wind towers. It will be powered entirely by renewable energy, mostly solar, and water will be provided through a solar-powered desalination plant.

The city will need only quarter the power of a similarly sized city, and its water needs will be 60% lower. Residents will move about in travel pods running on magnetic tracks instead of driving cars.

Masdar City will cost US$22 billion, take eight years to build and be home to 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses. In addition, The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, currently part of Phase One construction, will be home to 100 students and faculty when it is completed at the end of this year.

Abu Dhabi will invest $4 billion of equity in the project and borrow some of the rest. “We are creating an array of financial vehicles to finance the $22-billion development,” said Dr. al-Jaber. “We will monetize all carbon emission reductions... Such innovative financing has never been applied on the scale of an entire city.”

One sign of Masdar City’s growing international stature is the decision of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to relocate there next year.

Formed in January this year, IRENA provides practical advice and support for both developed and developing countries on developing inexpensive manufacturing technology that is also easy on the environment. It facilitates access to reliable data on the potential of renewable energy, best practices, effective financial mechanisms and the latest technological expertise.

Seventy five countries were founding members and today 137 countries are members, including the U.S. but not Canada. The Harper government still argues that new environmental technologies are expensive to develop and pollution-causing manufacturing is still necessary for economical reasons.

The UAE will give IRENA a grant of $136 million over six years, and cover all its operating costs. The Abu Dhabi Fund for Development has also created a special IRENA endowment of $50 million until 2016 for loans in support of renewable energy projects in the developing world.

Last month, representatives of member countries met in Abu Dhabi and agreed that IRENA will co-host a parallel event on “Renewable Energy Scenarios and Potentials” at the Copenhagen conference on climate change in December.

Skeptics of Masdar City are concerned that it will be little more than an environmental fig leaf for the oil-rich Gulf emirate, which has one of the world’s biggest per capita carbon footprints. The UAE produces 2.2 million barrels of oil daily and has reserves of 98 billion, which should last for 150 years. In fact, one of the purposes of Masdar is to reduce the UAE’s footprint, and persuade other OPEC members to adopt more environmentally friendly policies.

In January, the government announced a US$15-billion, five-year initiative to develop clean energy technologies. As part of the plan, Abu Dhabi will become home to the world’s largest hydrogen power plant. Funding is being channeled through the Masdar Initiative, and Abu Dhabi hopes it will lead to more lucrative international joint ventures.

Dr Mohamed Elmasry is Professor Emeritus of Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo. He can be reached at 

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