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Building A Carbon-Neutral Haven For Sustainability In The Middle East

Masdar City—Abu Dhabi’s $18 billion experiment in high-tech, low-resource living—got a ton of press when it was announced. Now that it’s up and running, is it living up to its promise?

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When it was first announced in 2006, it seemed like an incredibly odd fit: the world’s first large-scale carbon-neutral development, located in Abu Dhabi. But as time went on, it became clear that Masdar, the company behind the Masdar City cleantech hub, was serious about planting an $18 billion walled city filled with solar panels, wind towers, local building materials, and even a futuristic driverless personal rapid transit system, all in the heart of Middle Eastern oil country.

So far, there are a number of finished buildings, including restaurants, a library, retail outlets, and a handful of structures at the onsite Masdar Institute, a graduate institute focused on sustainability, science, and alternative energy. This is only the start. Siemens is in the process of setting up its Middle East headquarters in the city. By 2025, Masdar will have 40,000 residents and hundreds of businesses.

Between now and then, Masdar has plenty to do—and there have already been missteps along the way. Take the personal rapid transit pods, a series of all-electric driverless vehicles that run on magnets in the roadways. As the New York Times explained in a 2010 article, the original Masdar City design banned regular vehicles, envisioning that visitors and residents would just hop into the pods upon entering the city. That didn’t happen. Today, there are 12 PRT pods that shuffle people and freight around the Masdar Institute. "We’re not in any way saying the PRT solution will not be a viable solution going forward. Based on our lessons and experience, the development of PRT technology is going to take a little longer than we originally anticipated," acknowledges Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, the managing director and chief executive officer of Masdar.

Masdar was also originally supposed to be off the main power grid. It’s not (yet, at least).

Other parts of Masdar are progressing quite nicely. In the next five years, Al Jaber expects to have 400,000 to 500,000 square meters of built out area to accommodate the university and other companies locating in the city. According to Al Jaber, Masdar has also essentially incubated the recycled material and FSC-certified wood industries in the region, which didn’t exist before. It’s also taking a leading role in the Pearl Rating System, a building code in the United Arab Emirates that is similar to LEED.

In 2011, the city slashed electricity consumption by 51%, water consumption by 54%, and cooling requirements by 50% compared to average consumption in the UAE.

"There isn’t an example, a model in the world to build on or capitalize on or learn from. We had to learn by doing," says Al Jaber. "At the same time, the whole world was obliged to deal with a global economic situation that in a way helped us better analyze technologies because there was knowledge we had to meet and align our development goals with how the industry as a whole was progressing."

Since Masdar was announced, a handful of other cleantech-focused cities have sprung up around the world. Masdar is collaborating with some of them, including projects in China, Sweden, and Denmark. None have the same high profile as Masdar.

Regardless of whether these projects are more or less successful, the world’s eyes will remain fixed on the city inside Abu Dhabi, both because of its location and ambition. That gives Masdar a unique opportunity to demonstrate the perils and potential successes of trying to create a truly sustainable city. We’ll be watching.