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Utopia in the desert

Last updated on: November 14, 2008 18:48 IST

Two years ago, the investment fund of the oil-soaked city of Abu Dhabi handed Sultan Al Jaber $4 billion and a 2.5-square-mile parcel of desert. It was a starter kit.

Jaber, a petroleum engineer, had proposed that with all of its wealth from selling oil, Abu Dhabi should dive into alternative energy. At first, he and his staff figured they'd use the land for solar and wind projects and to accommodate new businesses. Then, as often happens in the United Arab Emirates, they began thinking on a grand scale.

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Construction equipment and pilings now cover the spot, 11 miles east of downtown Abu Dhabi, that will become Masdar City. Jaber plans it to be the world's first carbon-neutral city, where 50,000 people will live and work without cars or fossil fuels. It will be built by 2016, he says. The first component, a research institute affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is scheduled to open next year.

Jaber, 35, is now the chief executive officer of Abu Dhabi Future Energy, the government enterprise that runs the project. "What better investment can Abu Dhabi have than putting revenues from the oil sector into a future-energy sector?" he asks. The UAE, as one of the world's richest countries (per capita), is the land where outlandish dreams test the laws of physics. Developers unveil wonders: man-made islands shaped like palm trees; a ski slope inside Dubai's Mall of the Emirates; a hotel, the Burj Al Arab, that rises from the water like a sail; the Burj Dubai, the world's tallest skyscraper, half a mile high.

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Even alongside those feats of engineering, the master plan for Masdar City, created by the London architect Norman Foster, looks audacious. It describes a city on 23-foot-high stilts. Light-rail lines run overhead, and small shuttle cars carry people underneath the platform on which the city sits. Close-packed buildings shade narrow streets in a tight collection of blocks meant to evoke ancient Arab towns like Aleppo, Syria -- though in the mock-ups it all looks more like a computer motherboard.

The planners have designed the city's buildings to burn 30 kilowatt-hours of electricity per person a day, compared with an average of 54 across the UAE. The streets' shading should cut temperatures by as much as 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and heat pumps will move surface heat underground to trim the demand for air-conditioning by 30%.

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The city will get fresh water by solar desalination of seawater and by catching dew, and with conservation and recycling it will cut its consumption to 40% of the regional norm. Solar energy, wind turbines and other alternative power sources will provide all the electricity needed to run Masdar's research labs, homes and factories. Those labs and factories will in turn be exporting post-petroleum energy technology decades before Abu Dhabi's wells run dry.

"The scale and speed with which they want to get this done is amazing," says Nicholas Parker, chairman of the Cleantech Group, a green consulting firm. "No jurisdiction in the world has made this kind of commitment with this magnitude and within this kind of time frame."

Masdar may or may not become the "blueprint for future cities" that it aims to be. But at least, Parker says, it may inspire other countries to raise their goals for renewability. Also, he adds, it could cut clean energy costs for everybody by introducing economies of scale for many of its elements.

Jaber will have to find another $18 billion to reach the estimated $22 billion needed to complete Masdar City. He plans to raise most of it through partnerships with developers and corporations. One candidate is General Electric, which has signed on to build a research centre there. Some should come from selling carbon credits. Khaled Awad, Masdar's director of development, says he hopes to claim a million tons a year of carbon dioxide cuts. That's $25 million a year at the current price of $25 a ton.

A large hurdle will be figuring out how to make a variety of new and mature technologies work together when many haven't been tried on such a large scale. The below-level transit system, with cars that go directly to a passenger's destination, is one that will see its first use at London's Heathrow Airport next year. There it will have 18 cars. In Masdar the plan is to have 2,500 cars and 83 stations.

"At the Heathrow terminal you go from point A to point B and then from point B to point A," Jaber says, tracing the route in the air with his index finger. "We want this system to go from A to point D, and then to point J, and back to point B, with no accidents."

Getting to a completed Masdar City will be just as complicated, but Abu Dhabi, with 8 per cent of the world's oil reserves, can certainly afford to do whatever it takes.
Matthew Craft, Forbes
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