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Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Project: Desert Mirage Or Miracle?

Posted by Fereidoon P. Sioshansi on the April 30th, 2009

A $22 billion project is praised as an ambitious effort for a developing country and criticized as greenwash by others

From the May 2009 issue of EEnergy Informer.

When you have lots of cash, you can afford things that ordinary mortals cannot. A wealthy businessman recently paid $35 million to go on a joy ride to outer space for no apparent good to anyone. Some critics put the $22 billion Masdar project in Abu Dhabi in the same category, except that it will cost a lot more and may do a little good in the end. Others see the project as a worthy experiment, especially coming from a gas guzzling state in oil-rich United Arab Emirates.

The project, in a snapshot, is to build a self-contained economic zone creating 70,000 jobs and eventually housing as many as 40,000 residents in the middle of nowhere in the desert by 2016. The community, which is envisioned to house a science and technology park and housing for the same, is designed to be carbon neutral and virtually waste-free.

Two thirds of the power is to come from a 10 MW solar farm, nearly all water is to be recycled and reused. There will be virtually no waste as all packaging and materials are to be recycled, used for power generation or turned into compost. The car-free zone will be served by advanced personal rapid transit (PRT) vehicles that will zip residents around the 6.5 square kilometer area. If it sounds too good to be true, it may turn out to be that way.

The problem with Masdar, which means “source” in Arabic, is not so much what goes inside it, but rather what is outside. UAE is home to a massive energy guzzling indoor skiing resort that keeps artificial snow cool in the middle of summer when outside temperature soars to 50 degree Centigrade. Its per capita energy consumption is worse than the US – even though there is no industry to speak of and relatively little need for transportation given the relatively small size of the state.

Chart 1

Aside from energy, UAE has a huge appetite for desalinated water to keep its lush golf courses and parks green with non-native lawns and plants instead of heat tolerant local vegetation. Making matters worse, energy and water are generously subsidized by the state – along with everything else. This encourages conspicuous consumption unparalleled anywhere else on Earth with a few minor exceptions. In short, UAE is not a model for sustainable development and is justly criticized for it, which may explain what prompted Masdar’s CEO Sultan al-Jaber to envision the bold plan.

Richard Hirsekorn, who is managing the project at CH2M Hill, a U.S. engineering consulting company, describes the Masdar project as “Very leading-edge and innovative,” adding it will incorporate “many principles and technologies that haven’t been used on this scale in a city anywhere in the world.” John Hoffner, a solar engineer also working on the project is more reserved calling Masdar “one of the most exciting and challenging projects I have worked on to date. Very rewarding — and if the project is successful, it will be an example for the world.” (Emphasis added)

Despite all the high tech components and the glamour, the project uses many concepts from traditional design principles used in the dry and hot Middle East for centuries before the invention of air conditioning, including narrow streets oriented to shield the sun while capturing the prevailing wind, shallow pools that cool the air through evaporation, and wind towers that push cooler air to the ground and act as natural air conditioners. Cars will be banned in the special zone, which is connected to the rest of Dubai with a light rail line. And that is where energy efficiency ends. Once one steps outside the special zone, one is back to the real world of big SUVs driving around aimlessly on cheap oil, high rises and mega malls chilled with humming air conditioning in the desert sun.

Chart 1

Masdar is reminiscent of Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Once you park your car in the parking lot and enter, everything is clean safe and orderly, there are no cars, no crime and only fun and games –- no wonder it is called the happiest place on Earth. But once you step out of the park, the real world confronts you with all its unpleasant realities. And just as Disneyland has not changed the image of Los Angeles as an endless sprawl of wasteful freeways and millions of cars in search of a city center, Masdar is unlikely to change the image of Abu Dhabi as the most carbon intensive place on Earth.

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