Last week, in the harsh desert climate of Abu Dhabi, construction started on a city that will house 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses but use extremely little energy, and what it does use will come from renewable sources. The initial building is a new research institute that the founders hope will be the seed for the equivalent of a Silicon Valley of the Middle East, only one centered not on information technology but on renewable energy.
The city, which is expected to cost $22 billion, will implement an array of technologies, including thin-film solar panels that serve as the facades and roofing materials for buildings, ubiquitous sensors for monitoring energy use, and driverless vehicles powered by batteries that make cars unnecessary. Indeed, the city’s founders hope that it will serve as a test bed for a myriad of new technologies being proposed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
The new zero-emissions city, which is being built near the city of Abu Dhabi in the center of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is part of the Masdar Initiative, a $15 billion government-funded investment program designed in part to ensure that the UAE’s prosperity won’t be linked exclusively to its oil. Its leaders say that the project will give the country a leadership position in renewable energy. If it’s successful, says Sultan al Jaber, Masdar’s CEO, “we’ll be sitting on top of the world.”
Designing the city from the ground up will bring a number of advantages. About half of the cost of solar energy comes from installation materials and labor. In Masdar, thin-film solar cells can be incorporated directly into the facades of buildings in place of conventional construction materials, reducing the costs of the solar power. Energy needed for cooling will be reduced by controlling the orientation and design of the city’s buildings, streets, and green spaces to find a balance between shade and sun, and to promote natural-air circulation. Air conditioners will use absorption chillers that run on heat from the sun in place of conventional compressors.
Energy for transportation will also be reduced. Efficient electric transports will provide door-to-door service: just type in your destination, and the transport will come to your door and take you automatically to your destination. The power will be generated by renewable energy and stored onboard in batteries. On Monday, Masdar received the first bids on the system, which will likely use battery-powered vehicles running on tracks or powered by magnetic levitation.
Water use will be kept to a minimum–which will reduce energy needed for desalination. And sensors throughout the city will also keep residents informed of their energy use–and when they’re going to have to pay extra for using too much. All told, the city’s designers predict that efficiency improvements will result in a 75 percent reduction in energy consumption compared with a conventional city of the same size. The energy that is used will come almost entirely from solar–with wind and power from technology that converts garbage into fuel contributing smaller amounts.