The first hints of the project are visible. A white wall stretches through the desert, like a chalk line on a dusty playing field. A bus with darkened windows stirs a low cloud, ferrying workers past a cluster of steel cranes, two portable drilling rigs, and a stand of concrete columns sprouting rust-colored rebar. A tall wire fence guards rows of solar panels mounted on concrete pads.
The construction is the start of a vast experiment, an attempt to create the world’s first car-free, zero-carbon-dioxide-emissions, zero-waste city. Due to be completed in 2016, the city is the centerpiece of the Masdar Initiative, a $15 billion investment by the government of Abu Dhabi, which is part of the United Arab Emirates. The new development, being built on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi city, will run almost entirely on energy from the sun and will use just 20 percent as much power as a conventional city of similar size. Garbage will be sorted and recycled or used for compost; sewage will be processed into fuel. Concrete columns will lift the city seven meters off the ground, creating space underneath for a network of automated electric transports that will replace cars. Planners predict that the development will attract 1,500 clean-tech businesses, ranging from large international corporations to startups, and–eventually–some 50,000 residents.
The city will be an oasis of renewable energy in a country of five million, made rich by oil, that consumes the most natural resources per capita in the world. Seen one way, it’s just the latest ostentatious project in a country that’s been defined by them. Indeed, the UAE is already home to the world’s tallest building and an enormous indoor ski facility that features a 200-meter-long black-diamond slope. Real-estate developers have dredged coral and sand from the sea floor, piling it up in the Persian Gulf to create islands in the shape of palm trees and a map of the world.
Yet many experts are optimistic that the city can become a test bed for new approaches to the engineering and architectural problems involved in creating environmentally sustainable cities. Although architects have already designed and builders constructed many small zero-emissions residences and commercial buildings, projects involving large, multi-use commercial buildings have fallen short of expectations, using too much energy or failing to generate enough. Part of the problem is the growing complexity that comes with scale, says J. Michael McQuade, senior vice president of science and technology at United Technologies in Hartford, CT; today’s design software hasn’t been able to handle it. But Masdar City, itself developed with the help of extensive modeling, will be wired from the beginning to collect data that could prove valuable for developing better models. That information could make future zero-emissions cities cheaper and easier to build.
And the development is meant to make money, not just introduce new technology. “We want Masdar City to be profitable, not just a sunk cost,” said Khaled Awad, the project’s director of property development, at a huge real-estate exhibition in Dubai last fall. “If it is not profitable as a real-estate development, it is not sustainable.” Yet if it is, it may be replicable.
“If environmental engineers, by gaining experience from building this wild city, become much more productive at building the next city, this starts to move from being science fiction to something Houston would adopt,” says Matthew Kahn, a professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles. Gil Friend, CEO of Natural Logic, a sustainable-design company based in Berkeley, CA, agrees. “I see Masdar on the one hand as a playground for the rich,” he says, “and on the other hand as an R&D opportunity to deploy and test out technology that, if things go well, will show up in other cities.”
Of course, much of what’s learned from Masdar won’t apply outside the incredibly hot and sunny coast of the Persian Gulf. A site in Germany, which wouldn’t get as much sunlight, couldn’t rely as heavily on solar energy. A site in San Francisco might not need air conditioning, making information about advanced cooling systems less relevant. But if the project reaches its environmental goals, it will at the very least show that such cities can be built. “People say, ‘Gee, that would be great. That would be a good idea, but obviously it’s not possible,’” Friend says. “Once you can point at something, it takes away a lot of those arguments.”