Masdar. A model environmental city

Masdar. A model environmental city

Simone Cantarini (Agenzia Nova)
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In Abu Dhabi, a plan to build "the world's most sustainable eco-city" is taking shape, implementing cutting-edge technology to simultaneously facilitate rapid urbanization and reduce energy and water use. Interview with Yousef Baselaib, Executive Director of Sustainable Real Estate

In the heart of the United Arab Emirates, a few kilometers away from the big city of Abu Dhabi, the low-carbon city has been designed and conceived: Masdar City.  Its name literally means "Source City," because the entire project was thought of as a "source" of alternative energy, allowing the city to fuel itself. The idea, launched in 2008, immediately captivated the entire world: a city in the middle of the desert, which has become the center of the most innovative technological principles of environmental sustainability. The global crisis has certainly led to the redefinition of the city’s development model, in order to involve investors from third parties. This has led to delays in funding and deadlines. However, according to Yousef Baselaib, Executive Director of Sustainable Real Estate of Masdar City, the goal of making the project a sustainable development model is near: "In April, we announced the approval of the detailed Master Plan by the Urban Planning Council, which has paved the way for a major expansion. This will allow us to reaffirm our desire once again to provide a model of sustainable development of our cities now and in the future. Masdar City aspires to achieve the 4 Pearls Community rating of the ‘Estidama’ project and would be the first in the United Arab Emirates to so so."

What is the idea behind the Masdar City project?

Masdar City broke ground in 2008 to build a template, or "greenprint." for sustainable urban development and to promote an innovation hub in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Today, the city is growing as a thriving community and a genuine innovation ecosystem that has already made great strides in connecting education, R&D, technology and business opportunity. The city is a living demonstration of the potential of clean energy deployment, clean-tech innovation, sustainable urban development, and human capital creation. There is a wealth of clean energy pilot projects around the development; for example, in solar energy, electricity storage, biofuels, district cooling, and sustainable architecture. Masdar’s approach to urban development is based on the three pillars of sustainability—social, economic, environmental—to attract investment and encourage entrepreneurship, improve quality of life, and limit the carbon footprint of our towns and cities. The innovation we have overseen is supporting the deployment of clean energy in the UAE, the region and overseas, and the realization of future projects and the commercialization of new technologies. Over the next five years, Masdar City’s footprint will increase nearly fourfold as we develop its education facilities and apply research projects even further, enhance the services and infrastructure of its business and investment free zone, and continue to build new commercial and office space and residential communities.

Yousef Baselaib

Yousef Baselaib

He is Executive Director of Masdar's Sustainable Real Estate division and its flagship project Masdar City, a "greenprint" for the sustainable development of our future cities. He is responsible for driving the overall growth and direction of Masdar City's initiatives, and developing future opportunities in sustainable urban development in the MENA region and beyond.

What does the creation of a "zero emissions city" represent for an oil-producing country, which is also heavily dependent on hydrocarbons?

First of all, I should mention that Masdar City is ‘low carbon’ as opposed to "zero carbon." Minimizing the development’s carbon footprint is an ongoing process. With each new building or phase of the development, we try to push the envelope further. Masdar City is designed to consume 40% less energy and water than built-up environments of a comparable size. Our vision remains "zero carbon." However, no zero-carbon urban development exists today. Although the UAE is seen as a country dependent on hydrocarbons, there is a strong rationale for building a sustainable city that can lead the drive towards the greater use of renewables and clean technology. We live in one of the harshest desert climates in the world, and keeping cool in the summer months is energy intensive. However, the UAE. is aware of its energy needs and its environmental impact. That’s why we’re doing something about it, as there are tangible benefits from investing in and generating renewable energy in the UAE. Diversifying the global energy mix is critical if we’re to meet rising power demand, address energy security and build a sustainable future. It will help reduce our natural gas imports, diversify our energy sector and increase the security of our energy supply. Investing in renewable energy also supports Abu Dhabi’s goal of transitioning from an economy based on exporting natural resources to one based on knowledge capital.
Renewable energy is part of the future, and the UAE is poised to maintain its leadership in the energy sector because we recognize the economic, social and environmental benefits of deploying sustainable forms of energy.  Seeking additional secure sources of power also boosts our national energy security because oil and gas are commodities that are naturally subject to price variations due to the volatility of international markets. The use of oil as a fuel for power generation has decreased substantially in recent years. Today, it accounts for under 5% of the global electricity supply (down from 25% in 1973) and hence, a decrease in oil prices does not substantially alter renewable energy competitiveness within the power sector. In contrast, renewable energy costs are predictable and provide a hedge against this volatility, as they are based on technological development. That is one reason why more and more countries are investing increasingly in renewable energy.
In your opinion, how important is this project to the other Gulf countries, those currently struggling with ambitious programs in order to change their economic policy strategies?
Over the last decade, Masdar and Masdar City have grown from a bold idea into an innovative global brand at the center of clean energy and sustainable development. Masdar has led the adoption of technically and commercially viable renewable energy in the Gulf and the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) region. We are proud to have acted as a catalyst for our industry in the Arab world: the result is that Abu Dhabi is recognized today as a hub for sustainability and a global platform for policy debate and business opportunity. Clean Energy does not only embrace our capabilities as a developer and operator of renewables-based utilities. It also includes the emerging technologies and applied research that are bringing about the renewable energy and water solutions of the future as required by all of our Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors and further afield in the wider MENA region. Masdar will continue to perform a critical role in cultivating an environment where renewable energy is a viable and cost effective part of the energy-mix. Today, the MENA region is set to attract USD 35 billion worth of renewable energy investments every year by 2020 (Source: IRENA), with governments increasingly prepared to engage with the market to ensure success. We feel that Masdar has played a critical role in helping to make this happen.

What is the status of the Masdar City development and what is the financial impact of the project? Could you tell us how many companies are involved?

After the global economic downturn in 2008, Masdar City’s development model was redefined to include third-party investors. Since Masdar City is no longer only self-developed, providing a meaningful estimate of costs and output is very difficult. Masdar City is a business unit of Masdar, which is a subsidiary of Mubadala Development Company PDJC, an investment vehicle of the Government of Abu Dhabi. Only the self-developed parts of Masdar City are government funded. The rest will be managed through third-party investment and joint venture development which will be the majority of the overall investment, according to sustainability guidelines drawn up by Masdar City and the development objectives of the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council. In April, we announced the approval of the Urban Planning Council of the Detailed Master Plans for Phase 2 and Phase 5 of the City, paving the way for major expansion. This will allow us to further demonstrate our ambition to provide a template for the sustainable development of our cities now and in the future. Masdar City aspires to be a 4 Pearl Estidama Community, the first in the UAE. Around 35% of the planned built-up area will be completed over the next five years, and 30% has already been committed to, including private homes, schools, hotels and more office space. At present, more than 370 companies from six continents operate from Masdar City, from start-ups to multinationals, including the Middle East headquarters of Siemens, Lockheed Martin, GE, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and Schneider Electric. The City also hosts the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the first intergovernmental organization to be located in the Middle East. The offices of Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) recently relocated to the City, bringing more than 700 full-time staff. A division of Etihad Airways has also just moved into the City, with the addition of a further 550 full-time staff.

Do you think that the project will have a positive effect on Emirates economy in term of growth? Do you have any estimate?

We believe that innovating and commercializing new renewables technologies will have a demonstrable impact on the local economy. Although Masdar is not solely responsible for meeting the UAE’s clean energy targets, it is committed to working with the Abu Dhabi utility sector to ensure that it is met. The UAE aspires to meet 24% of its electricity needs from alternative energy sources by 2021. Our efforts to support the Abu Dhabi government include the delivering of 10 MW at Masdar City and the 100 MW Shams 1 solar power project inaugurated in 2013. These and other projects have already proved the viability of solar energy in the UAE. A Masdar-led consortium is also the selected bidder to develop the third phase of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai, involving the development of an 800 MW photovoltaic array, the largest of its kind in the region. At Masdar, we understand that bringing about a sustainable future is not only about investment. It is also a mix of innovation, knowledge transfer, research & development, and awareness building. The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, the nucleus of Masdar City, is teaching and mentoring the next generation of leaders in renewable energy and clean-tech through its world-class curriculum. In addition, Masdar is the Middle East’s largest exporter of renewable energy and has the potential to export our expertise in urban sustainable development to other parts of the UAE, the region and overseas.

What are the opportunities of the project in terms of innovation, especially for energy consumption and the possibility of reducing energy dependence from fuels?

Diversifying the global energy mix is critical if we’re to meet rising electricity demands, address energy security and build a sustainable future. Renewable energy is part of the future, and the UAE is poised to maintain its leadership in the energy sector. In fact, we recognize the economic, social and environmental benefits to developing and deploying renewable energy. The world will continue to rely on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future—but balancing the energy mix and introducing cleaner forms of power is necessary to enhance our energy security and to promote sustainable development. Masdar City uses clean energy generated on site from rooftop solar panels and a 10 MW solar power plant supplying the national grid. The plant produces 17,500 MWh of clean electricity annually—enough to power more than 1,000 homes—and diverts 15,000 tons of carbon emissions per year. Pilot research projects located at Masdar City, many of them led by or closely involving Masdar Institute scientists and students, are accelerating the acquisition of scientific knowledge in the clean-tech industry and paving the way towards the development of real-world commercial applications.

Do you think that Masdar City project will be exported abroad in the future, i.e. to highly polluted areas such as Western and Asian cities?

Masdar has been a global flagship for Abu Dhabi and the UAE. We have achieved ten years of innovation, and this inspires us to set our sights even higher for the next ten. The design and innovation process applied at Masdar City to develop a city with a low carbon footprint could be applied in many other locations around the world. With more than half of the world’s population (of 7.3 billion) already living in town and cities, and with the total population expected to reach 9 billion by 2030, Masdar is applying technologies and solutions aimed at minimizing the environmental impact of urban communities and providing a viable template, or "greenprint," to accommodate greater urban population density more sustainably. We hope to inspire and help others.