Photos by Brian Merchant
Masdar City is intended to be big. Big in all regards, besides population and geographical size. It's founded on a big idea; a carbon neutral oasis outside the oiliest city on Earth. It's supposed to be a big deal; a city that will attract the best clean energy researchers and pioneering renewable companies from around the world. It demands to draw headlines, to creep into the imagination of the climate conscious, and eventually, the world's. In this way, the nascent city is a pretty good metaphor for clean energy itself, and the station it occupies on the world's stage: full of potential, only a fraction realized, continually delayed, undeniably exciting -- and nobody's quite sure how seriously anyone else is taking it.
Few would deny that it's a bold idea, however -- erect an entire city devoted to the research and commercialization of clean energy, and then power it entirely with the fruits of such research. Show everybody that a city can sustain itself without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and then study and perfect the art of doing so within the city's walls.
This is not just some idle pet project enacted by the some wealthy benefactors, in other words -- this is a calculated effort to turn the world's head; and perhaps to plant the seedlings of a vision for a United Arab Emirates beyond oil. Exactly how much of Masdar City is devoted to head-turning and how much is aimed at fertilizing those seedlings is one of those questions that journalists chase around aimlessly without ever getting closer to a satisfactory answer.
And chase it they did -- I was in Abu Dhabi last week, courtesy of Masdar, in part to tour the fledgling city, and the number one question that the press corps seemed bent on answering was just how much money the Abu Dhabi government was pumping into Masdar City. (The answer, according to the Masdar COO? A few billion dollars, give or take a billion -- lets say $2 billion)
The reason that the question so motivated the press corp was probably the feeling that the size of the investment must reflect the degree of sincerity by which Masdar was being carried out. How much did the oil baron kings of the UAE really care about clean energy? Of course, the answer given really cleared nothing up; the sum could neither be confirmed to be accurate (our tour guide estimated that one of the buildings currently under construction on the city site cost $1 billion itself) nor did it append or negate the validity of the enterprise. And again, with the wider parallels: like any self-respecting Western energy company, the capital invested -- and scheduled to be invested -- in the renewable project is tentative, prone to change, and hard to pin down.
The difference is, the UAE probably doesn't need to brand itself as 'green' to inspire consumer confidence, as say, Chevron does. Then again, perhaps it does -- maybe it stands to win diplomatic favor from nations who recognize its contribution to the global quest for energy solutions (or whose ambassadors read the press releases stating as much).
Regardless, it boils down to this: Abu Dhabi makes a crapload of money off oil, and they are spending a little bit of it to build Masdar. The rest is speculation. So let's take a look at the city-in-progress itself.
Here's what the city looks like, with its distinctive neo-Arabic architecture:
It's a ways along Phase 1 of construction -- the city thus far consists of a cluster of buildings, a 10 MW solar array, a Personal Rapid Transit station, a handful of experimental clean energy projects, and a whole lot of construction. That cluster of buildings contains a research lab for Masdar Institute (a collaboration with MIT), a couple residential buildings, a library, and a cafeteria. The city is home to just over one hundred residents.
The PRT is cool and futuristic-seeming -- here's a video of what it's like to ride in one of the driverless, magnetically-guided electric pods:
It's not likely ever to be built to scale (original plans called for 3,000 cars running 150,000 trips a day), being too expensive and inefficient. Normal electric cars will probably take PRT's place. Also interesting were the variety of energy experiments carried out in the desert adjacent to the city, like this concentrated solar project:
But what interested me most about Masdar weren't the bells and whistles -- though they were the best kind of bells and whistles indeed -- but the concept of a clean energy community. This place was designed to be home to real people, after all; people willing to move across the world to a half-city in the desert. How would they live? What would their relationship to energy be?
We didn't get a chance to talk but briefly with the residents, who as of now are almost exclusively research students and their families. Yet there's one feature of Masdar that I have a hunch will define the unique social fabric of the clean city more than anything besides the work. In the middle of one of the two or three blocks that make up Masdar, there's a giant cooling tower that directs the desert winds down into the city's specially-designed breeze corridors. But the tower also acts as a giant indicator of energy usage -- LED lights align its side, and it changes color according to the entire block's energy usage. If you leave the TV on in your apartment all day, that sucker's lighting up, letting passersby know that you're not doing your part.
Furthermore, we were told that the community planners are currently testing three separate behavior regimens to attempt to get the little neighborhoods to cut back on energy use. #1 is to provide discrete incentives for improved energy efficiency (perhaps lower bills, etc), #2 is to do nothing, and leave it up to the glowing LED to influence behavior, and #3 is to simply enforce energy consumption controls by imposing hardline rules. In other words, instituting the eco-nazi stereotype that consumerist America is terrified of.
These options offer the final wide-lens parallel (and right before my metaphor ran out of steam ...) -- the extent to which living with clean energy still presents its share of gaping variables. Behavior will need to change to adopt to the circumstances of clean energy as well, and efficiency will become a more prevalent consideration. This doesn't mean that the lights will be off for long hours of the day, as some melodramatists like to imagine; it simply means our relationship to how we use energy may become more fluid -- and understanding that relationship better will be more important.
In this regard, Masdar City is a first class experiment; or it will be as soon as more of the tenants move in. Whether or not the city is the UAE's top priority or its last, there's still much to be learned from its bold example. To be sure, it will be fascinating to see what innovations are fostered out in the Arabian desert -- but it will be even more interesting to see how its residents respond to living in the midst of those innovations.