Masdar: A $2 Billion Clean Energy City Grows in the Desert

The panels that power Masdar. Photos by Brian Merchant

If you follow green issues even fleetingly, chances are you've heard of Masdar City -- the enigmatic, controversial, and pioneering ultra-low carbon city being built in the desert outside Abu Dhabi. Amongst environmentalists, it's long been a source of contention: Why is the oil-rich United Arab Emirates building a hub of clean energy research and commerce? Is it a massive PR stunt designed to earn the favor of climate-concerned nations? Or is it exactly what the UAE should be doing; transitioning from an oil-based economy to one that's tech and information-based? Regardless, Masdar is becoming a reality -- and its green pedigree is hard to dispute. Today, I toured the nascent cleantech capital -- here's a snapshot of Masdar City in 2011: So far, there's only one major cluster of buildings that's been constructed in the heart of Masdar-to-be -- all around it, cranes are parked, construction materials lay in neatly separated piles, and a small army of neon-vested workers move about the landscape. Those buildings already standing comprise Masdar Institute (a graduate-level research facility in partnership with MIT) and residences for those who work there. There's a cafe, a research lab, a few apartment buildings, a library, and, well, desert. It's an island of development in a sea of hazy flatlands.

The core of Masdar.

Some 150 people already live there, mostly researchers and their families. When Masdar is completed, it will be home to 40,000-50,000 people, and serve as a workplace for over 100,000 commuters -- the jobs will primarily be in the clean energy sector, in both academic and commercial capacities.

And, of course, the city is "carbon neutral" (though the phrase has been stricken from the official literature) or at least striving to be significantly carbon-deficient. It's powered entirely by clean energy by day, getting 14 MW from a nearby solar plant that's already connected to the grid. The plant is currently yielding a power surplus, after powering the city and its construction operations (besides the fossil fuel-powered vehicles), and sending energy back to the grid. Clearly, not all of the construction materials (cement, steel) are carbon-free, but Masdar claims it's making a concerted effort to use recycled and salvaged materials to the greatest extent possible.

For transportation, there's a small Personal Rapid Transit system that's already in operation, with a handful of electric pods ferrying residents about the tiny complex. Masdar was originally designed to be a pedestrian city, with a multitude of mass transit options -- now, however, electric vehicles will be allowed on the premises.

A number of innovations are already in place -- breeze corridors, doing exactly what they sound like they'd do, direct cool air through the complex. A giant cooling tower draws wind down into the compound, adds a fine mist, and keeps the outside temperature 5 or 6 degrees (C) colder than the outside desert. LED lights line the tower, and broadcast how energy efficient the adjacent community's behavior is at the moment. Which means if you left the TV on in your apartment all day, those green lights will turn red, demonstrating your bloc's energy wastefulness.

Finally, there are a handful of renewable energy research projects scattered around the perimeter -- a small concentrated solar power plant, and an intriguing prototype of a solar cooling plant.

After the tour, a press conference was held with the higher ups of Masdar -- it's an energy company, not just a city -- to delve into the future of the city. In the coming years, the it's set to expand, attracting thousands of live-in residents and over 10,000 commuters by 2015. The nature of this expansion remains somewhat vague, though it's ostensibly to be achieved through partnerships with international companies and foreign governments. What this community will actually look like remains pretty abstract.

But one topic of much speculation was cleared up some: after a heated back and forth between attendant journalists and the Masdar leadership over how much money had actually been invested in the city, COO Dale Rollins conceded that a figure "in the low billions" had been spent. He later confirmed that roughly $2 billion was invested thus far in Masdar City -- but that covered planning, infrastructure, construction, not just those buildings standing today.

That's Masdar City in a nutshell -- I'll file a more conclusive report after I've finished poking around the World Future Energy Summit -- but for now, suffice to say that it's one of the most ambitious, stunning, and puzzling clean energy projects currently in construction.

More on Masdar and the World Future Energy Summit
World Future Energy Summit 2011: Exploring Clean Power in a City Built on Oil
Masdar, Abu Dhabi: Dubious No More
Masdar City Announces First Corporate Tenant: GE Ecomagination
Masdar : Sustainable Model or High-End Ghetto?

Tags: Clean Energy | Oil | Solar Power