Against the backdrop of the UAE’s extraordinary oil and gas reserves and some of the world’s highest per-capita energy consumption and waste generation, the Masdar development looks set to transform the way developers look at the issue of sustainable development.
Abu Dhabi has a bold plan: to transform itself into a world leader in sustainability and newer, cleaner energy technologies. At the forefront of this vision is the construction of a city of 40,000 inhabitants with a zero-carbon footprint that will be powered entirely by renewable energy - a surprising goal, given that the emirate sits atop nearly one-tenth of the world's oil reserves. Why is a nation so rich in hydrocarbons focusing on developing alternative energy sources? "The answer is simple," says Sultan Al Jaber, Chief Executive Officer of Masdar, the developers planning the city. "Number one, because we can. Number two, because we should. And because this is a logical step and a natural extension for our involvement in the energy markets."
Masdar promotes a long-term commitment to meeting the world's growing energy needs in an environmentally sustainable manner, through the development of innovative and sustainable technologies. Throughout the world, leading universities, research centers and manufacturers are making great strides in the advancement of renewable energies and systems. The Masdar development will bring all these together in one ambitious plan.
For starters, the city will be car-free, powered by renewable energy with services digitally managed and providing real-time information. With a maximum distance of 200 meters to the nearest transport link and amenities, the compact network of streets will encourage walking and is complemented by a personalized rapid transport system. Shaded walkways and narrow streets will create a pedestrian friendly environment, while surrounding land will contain wind, photovoltaic farms, research fields and plantations, enabling the city to be entirely self-sustaining.
"There is nothing like this in the world," explains Al Jaber. "We are creating a synergetic environment; it is a true alternative energy cluster. Here you will find researchers, students, scientists, business investment professionals and policymakers all within the same community. It will be a living example of sustainable development that will position Abu Dhabi and Masdar at the forefront of intelligent resource utilization. And it will combine the talent, expertise and resources to enable the technological breakthroughs necessary for truly sustainable development."
It's a sizeable undertaking. The masterplan sets out a vision for a compact campus-style research and development infrastructure that provides a blueprint for a sustainable, socially vibrant mixed-use community. Special economic zones will attract the best in the fields of manufacturing and provide employment for the emerging students. The creation of new production facilities will help the region become an exporter of new technologies and a positive engineering base.
The blueprint documents encompass waste, energy, water and transport infrastructures as well as other aspects such as lifestyle, cultural heritage, climate and biodiversity. "We believe that a blueprint for sustainable urban development on the Masdar site is possible by combining innovative energy and environmental technologies with traditional principles of climatic and culturally responsive city planning in compact settlements throughout Arabia and other parts of the world," says Al Jaber.
"For the first time in history, more than half of the world's population now lives in cities, with their traditional energy inefficiencies, waste and pollution," he says. "We must fundamentally re-think how cities can conserve energy and other resources. We must heavily employ new technologies and even create new urban models, as we are doing in Masdar City. Abu Dhabi recognizes that a range of solutions are required to meet future energy needs, and Masdar reflects our leadership's strategic vision to continue its role as a global energy leader."
It is a compelling, if somewhat ambitious, vision of the future. But even with the backing of the Abu Dhabi government and an increased public appetite for greener, more environmentally friendly projects, the development faces some significant challenges - not least of which is the global economic slowdown. For one thing, the price of oil - Abu Dhabi's most valuable resource - has plummeted to less than a third of its peak value last summer. In addition, the investment climate has slowed significantly as access to the credit markets has tightened.
"We cannot ignore that 2008 has been a difficult year," admits Al Jaber. "The scale of the world's financial challenges has had an impact on nearly every sector in the global economy, including renewable energy. The lack of available capital and lower oil prices has certainly created some doubts about the renewable energy sector and whether it can maintain its relevance and continue attracting investment in these difficult times. However, we should not accept this perspective. Renewable energy continues to make absolute sense, even in difficult times such as these."
The Masdar Headquarters, currently under construction in the sands outside Abu Dhabi, will go beyond zero net energy: it will be the world's first mixed-use, large-scale positive energy building. And it will utilize pioneering, never-before-seen technology to get there.
The design takes it cue from centuries of indigenous architecture, marrying historically successful building strategies for the climate with the latest technology and innovative building systems - including some developed especially for the project. The design includes numerous systems that will generate a surplus of the building's energy, eliminate carbon emissions and reduce liquid and solid waste. The complex will utilize sustainable materials and feature integrated wind turbines, outdoor air quality monitors and one of the world's largest building-integrated solar energy arrays. Compared with typical mixed-use buildings of the same size, Masdar HQ will consume 70 percent less water.
"The Masdar Headquarters will set a new paradigm for the way buildings are designed, constructed and inhabited," says Gordon Gill, partner at architecture firm AS+GG, the company behind the design. "The project represents the perfect integration of architecture and engineering, resulting in a dynamic, inviting building that outperforms any other structure of its type in the world."
"As a positive energy complex, the project will have a far-reaching influence on the buildings of tomorrow," adds AS+GG's Adrian Smith.
Masdar City will be constructed over seven phases and is due to be completed by 2016. The headquarters building is part of phase one and will be completed by the end of 2010.