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Building the Zero-Emissions City

A city being built in Abu Dhabi will serve as a large-scale test for renewable energy.

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.

Electronic chauffer: Driverless transports will provide door-to-door service for occupants of a new city being built in Abu Dhabi (top). A typical street will be sheltered from most direct sunlight. Solar panels overhead and built into the walls of buildings will provide power.

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.

This, as least, is the theory. One of the main purposes of the city is to find out what works and what doesn’t. This experiment will continue even after the city is completed in eight years; “innovation hubs” throughout the city will test new technologies, including some developed at the new Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. The school is being developed in partnership with MIT, which is selecting faculty and designing curricula.

Of the $22 billion in expected costs, the Abu Dhabi government will provide about $4 billion for infrastructure. The rest of the money will come from outside investors. Masdar’s leaders hope that the city’s environmental credentials and low energy costs–along with tax breaks–will lure buyers to the property. “We want it to be profitable, not a sunk cost,” says Khaled Awad, who is directing the development of the city. “If it is not profitable as a real-estate development, it’s not sustainable. Then it will never be replicable anywhere else.”

In some ways, however, it won’t be replicable. Al Jaber notes that the project could not have been done anywhere else–“It’s a huge risk.” The enormous wealth in Abu Dhabi, which Fortune ranked the world’s richest city last year, makes a zero-emissions city a tenable proposition. What’s more, the design is specific to Abu Dhabi, accounting for, for example, the position of the sun throughout the year (which is dependent on the city’s latitude), the high temperatures (which are bad for most solar cells), and the nature of the wind (the city will use wind turbines much smaller than conventional ones because of low wind speeds). As a result, future developments outside the region will have to be redesigned. “Everywhere we go, we will have to custom-tailor our model for the specific environment,” al Jaber says.

Nevertheless, Paul Dickerson, the chief operating officer for the United States’ Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, believes that Masdar will prove a valuable model. “We will no longer have to guess what the city of the future looks like,” he says. “In Abu Dhabi, we will be able to see it with our own eyes.”

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