World's First Post-Petroleum City Rising in Abu Dhabi


Workers from the Indian subcontinent building a field of photovoltaic solar panels in Masdar City.

While some of the plans for new ecological cities elsewhere in the world have faltered of late, work on Abu Dhabi's Masdar City is already well underway and appears to be plowing full speed ahead. A small army of workers and heavy equipment currently inhabit the 6.5 square kilometer site of the future eco-city.

A flock of journalists set out from downtown Abu Dhabi this Sunday to get a sneak peek at what will eventually be the world's first modern ecological city. The tour, part of this week's World Future Energy Summit, was organized by Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company's Masdar Initiative, the corporate entity that is building the project, with the goal of giving the world an early look at its flagship project.Work in Progress

Khaled Awad, Director of Property Development at the Masdar Initiative, gestures toward Masdar City's first buildings. Behind him, Masdar's perimeter fence and empty land on which the city will be built.

On a surprisingly overcast day (the following day it actually rained, a rarity in this part of the world), Masdar's builders explained their plans for this as yet mostly empty piece of land.

An entirely car-free city, multi-story parking lots will be built outside its walls. Masdar will be bisected by a light rail line, and a personal rapid transit system (or PRT - kind of a cross between an electric car and a mini-light rail) will take passengers to within 100 meters of any destination in the city.

Construction workers are already hard at work erecting "stage one" of the project, which includes a 10MW solar power farm, the foundations of Masdar's corporate offices, and Masdar Institute - an academic institution, developed in cooperation with MIT, that will focus on sustainable energy research.

First Residents Move in this Fall

With the understated confidence common to many of Masdar's project managers, Khaled Awad, who oversees the city's construction, tells us that Masdar Institute's first class of students will already be living and studying here by the fall of 2009. No one here raises any doubts about this. In Abu Dhabi, decisions are made resolutely and carried out at lightning speed.


The Masdar Institute going up in Masdar City. By the fall, students will already be studying here.

The rest of the city will be a mix of residential construction and office buildings, as well as retail and public spaces. Not just any company can rent office space here - Masdar is keen to attract cleantech companies and other businesses with an environmental focus. Employees of these firms will also be given first access to rental apartments as they are built.

Solar Rooftops

The next stop on the tour is an experimental site for testing photovoltaic panels. Forty one systems, from thirty three different suppliers, have been set up here in order to see how they stand up to local heat, humidity and soil. In a small building nearby, the productivity of each system is measured. According to measurements taken thus far, the solar panels being tested here have about twice the energy output that they would in a European climate.

Inspired by the traditional Middle Eastern city, Masdar's plan calls for all of the city's buildings to have flat roofs. The city's builders estimate that by putting photovoltaic panels on all of this roof space, around three million square meters, they can create just about enough energy to meet the needs of the entire city (an estimated 200-230MW of electricity).

Solar Energy to Power Construction

Workers installing solar panels.

On the other side of the site, local company Enviromena is building a 55 acre, 10MW solar plant, the largest in the Middle East. Work is almost done, and the plant is expected to be connected to the electric grid in March. These panels will meet the project's energy demands during the initial construction period.

The panels are mounted on stands made out of partially recycled concrete, locally made steel and reused wood. With the emirate's leadership and massive funds behind them, the project's managers have discovered their ability to demand products that are not even available on the market.

For example, explains Awad, Masdar's builders decided that steel would significantly increase the project's ecological footprint, and went looking for alternatives. To their surprise, the market responded, supplying 100% recycled steel that even beat the market price for conventional steel.

Aluminum, another construction material whose manufacturing process requires massive amounts of energy (Masdar takes all of this energy into account when determining the city's overall footprint), was initially banned. However, after finding themselves shut out of the project, manufacturers approached Masdar with 95% recycled aluminum, which requires much less energy to produce, at the same competitive rates.

Masdar City - Revolution or Gimmick?

Sandwiched between an expanding airport, a new neighborhood of luxury villas , a golf club and various other real estate projects, Masdar City will be a self-contained island of sustainability - a city within a city. Just under a million people live in Abu Dhabi; Masdar will house only some 40,000. Another 50,000 commuters will work inside its walls.


In the foreground, a sea of solar energy to power Masdar's construction. Beyond the perimeter fence, another unsustainable real estate project goes up next door.

Masdar and its partners are keen to market the project as a "manifesto for sustainable life" - the antidote to the outdated cities of the 20th century. This is the great potential of the city, as a testing ground for a variety of new and so far unproven technologies, and as a convincing argument for sustainable city design. If Masdar is a success, it will raise the bar for city planners, architects and elected officials around the world.

However, if Masdar City remains an isolated experiment in sustainable living, disconnected from the rest of Abu Dhabi (where rampant construction, wasteful energy use and the dominance of the fossil fuel economy remain the norm), its impact at home will be limited, and it will be seen by many as a green smokescreen, a gimmick whose real purpose is to draw attention away from some of the emirate's less sustainable endeavors.


Coming Soon? A rendering of life in Masdar City (courtesy of Masdar).

One thing is clear: Masdar City is real, not just some paper fantasy. Whether a vehicle for Abu Dhabi's transformation into a locus of green in the Middle East or merely a clever marketing strategy, Masdar City is already rising from the desert, the first large-scale attempt at ecological new city planning in the world.

This oil guzzling boomtown is pinning its hopes for the future on the success of this zero-waste, carbon-neutral, ultra-sustainable development. If it succeeds, Abu Dhabi could be on its way to positioning itself as a leader in green business, industry, and city design on a global level.

Watch for more updates from the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi all this week on TreeHugger.
More on Masdar:
Roundtable Discussion: Can Masdar City be a Truly Sustainable City?
Masdar City to Build Energy-Positive Building
Model Ecopolis Called Masdar

Tags: Carbon Neutral | Cities | Renewable Energy | Solar Technology | Urban Planning