Energy surplus: Masdar headquarters, shown in an architectural rendering, is designed to generate more renewable electricity than it consumes; it would be the first large-scale, multi-use building to do so.
The Masdar Initiative is part of an ambitious plan to transform a resource-based economy–the third-largest exporter of oil in the world–into one based on knowledge and expertise. The name Masdar comes from the Arabic word for “source,” and the plan is to make Abu Dhabi the Silicon Valley of alternative energy: a source of talent, patents, and startups in the very industry that could one day challenge the supremacy of oil. It’s a daunting challenge to say the least, especially for a region that, according to Awad, “hasn’t been known for innovation for a thousand years.”
The city was conceived as a tax-free zone meant to attract clean-technology companies, largely from other countries. (The first tenant, General Electric, plans to build a 4,000-square-meter facility.) The Masdar Institute, the first part of the city to be built, is meant to be what Stanford University is to Silicon Valley. Developed in collaboration with MIT, which organized the curriculum and is helping to select and train the faculty, the institute will be a graduate research school, offering master’s degrees and, eventually, PhDs. Its first class of 100 students will start courses this fall. And if graduates develop promising ideas and start companies, they can look to the Masdar Initiative for capital. Of the $15 billion the government has set aside so far for the initiative, only about $4 billion is designated as seed money for building the city’s infrastructure. (The city is expected to cost a total of $22 billion, the rest to come from outside investors.) The remaining $11 billion is earmarked for a range of investments; projects so far include a solar-cell factory in Germany, an offshore wind farm in the United Kingdom, and efforts to reduce carbon emissions in Nigeria.
Still, the city is the most visible part of the initiative. It is by far the largest zero-emissions and zero-waste project in the world, according to several experts. (A larger “eco-city” development near Shanghai doesn’t aspire to zero emissions.) Efforts elsewhere have so far been limited to small to moderate-sized buildings and small communities, like a series of efficient row houses for 250 people in Wallington, South London. One of the most ambitious zero-emissions buildings to date, the Lewis Center at Oberlin College in Ohio, has 1,263 square meters of floor space. Masdar City will cover six square kilometers. Its headquarters alone, which will include offices as well as retail and cultural space, will occupy an 89,500-square-meter structure.
A detailed master plan for the city is complete, as are plans for the first buildings: the Masdar Institute and the headquarters. The city–which will include apartments and laboratories, but also factories, movie theaters, cafés, schools, fire stations, and so on–is intended to generate as much electricity as it uses. Its water will be recycled to save the energy costs of desalination. Vacuum tubes under the city will transport garbage to a central location, where it will be sorted, and as much as possible will be recycled. Trash that can’t be recycled will be converted to energy through a gasification process and the leftovers incorporated into building materials. Sewage will be treated and some of it processed into a dry renewable fuel for generating electricity. The transportation system will include a light-rail line linking the development to downtown Abu Dhabi and the airport, as well as a personal rapid-transit (PRT) system with stations throughout the city. The PRT, a system of automated electric vehicles, will connect people to the rail line or deliver them to parking garages outside the city.
As is typical for zero-emissions projects to date, the city will need to rely in part on fossil fuels–both during construction and for power at night, when its solar panels won’t be producing any electricity. The goal is actually best described as zero net carbon dioxide emissions: to reach the zero-emissions target, the developers will turn to a system of carbon credits. As the city is being built, a 10-megawatt array of solar panels will deliver power to nearby Abu Dhabi city, reducing demand for electricity from local natural-gas-fired power plants during the day. The carbon emissions saved will offset the emissions produced at night, when Masdar draws power from those same natural-gas plants. This solar array, and additional panels that will be installed as construction continues and electricity demand grows, will also offset the carbon emissions from construction equipment, from the processes used to make building materials such as concrete, and even from consultants’ flights into Abu Dhabi from cities around the world.