Masdar City: The World's Greenest City?

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Duncan Chard / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Personal Rapid Transit electric vehicles at a parking station at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi

The doors swish shut and with the press of a touchscreen button, the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) car is off, gliding through the tunnels beneath Abu Dhabi's new Masdar City. The sleek four-passenger vehicle — which looks like something out of the movie TRON: Legacy — runs on an electric motor, making it clean and carbon-free. There are no tracks — the car is autonomous, driven by a computer that charts direction with the help of tiny magnets embedded in the road. When my PRT car senses another vehicle waiting in our parking space, it stops and waits for the area to clear, avoiding a collision. PRT is meant to be the future of mass transit within cities, with the environmental benefits of buses and trains but the freedom of a private vehicle. But as my car pulls into an open docking bay, I can't help thinking there's something slightly silly about all this. For all the technology — which isn't cheap — the PRT has taken me to its one and only stop, maybe half a mile (800 m) from the starting point. For a lot less — and not much more time — I could have used a much older form of transport: my legs.

In a nutshell, that is what's good and bad about Masdar. Back in 2007, the government of Abu Dhabi — a Middle Eastern emirate that controls 8% of the world's oil reserves — announced that it would build "the world's first zero-carbon city," a custom-designed settlement called Masdar. (The word means source in Arabic.) It would rely entirely on renewable energy — mostly solar — and would produce zero waste. It would be home to a university dedicated to the study of sustainability, as well as attract the best companies in clean tech. There would be no traditional cars inside the city — all transportation was to be via PRT vehicle — and it would use half the energy of a settlement of the same size. The urban layout — by the green-minded British architect Norman Foster — would combine classic Arab design with 21st century technology. Masdar would be a living lab for a greener, cleaner future and a bridge for Abu Dhabi as it prepared for a day when the oil ran out. "We will position Abu Dhabi as the hub of future energy," Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, Masdar's CEO, told me in January 2008.

Fast forward three years and the plans have changed. Masdar City was originally scheduled to be completed by 2015, but the financial crash — which hit the United Arab Emirates hard — pushed back the date indefinitely. A truly zero-carbon city proved too ambitious — or maybe too difficult, given the current limitations of renewable energy — so now the aim is for low carbon. Transport within the city will no longer be done solely with the PRTs — instead, electric buses and other mass transit will be included in the mix. Though the first phase of the project — the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology — was completed in the fall of 2010 and opened to students, it's still easy to wonder whether clean-tech companies and expats will be drawn to Masdar, and whether the sustainable city will ever be able to sustain itself.

Still, while Masdar may inspire skepticism, it would be a mistake to dismiss the whole project as green folly. That much was clear when I toured the Masdar Institute, the first part of Foster's vision to be completed, on a return visit in mid-January. After arriving via the PRT, visitors walk up a spiral staircase to the city's surface. The streets are narrow and sheltered by wells that block the desert sunlight, while openings in the walls channel a refreshing wind that Masdar officials say makes the city feel as much as 70°F (21°C) cooler than its surroundings. Both features are seen in traditional Arab cities. The result is a layout that encourages walking and street life — something rarely seen in modern Middle Eastern cities like Dubai, which have embraced the automobile and vast air-conditioned towers.

That design helps encourage energy conservation — the cooler the city is, the less need for electricity-hogging air-conditioning. (Liberal AC use is one of the many reasons Abu Dhabi proper has the biggest per capita carbon footprint in the world.) But the buildings themselves take advantage of green materials, from the sustainable Douglas fir used to build the institute's library to the superstrong ethylene tetrafluoroethylene plastics that sheathe the laboratories, deflecting sunlight and insulating the interior. Windows have shades angled to avoid direct sunlight, providing light without heat while preserving modesty for the occupants of the residential buildings, in keeping with local customs. There's even a 147-ft.-tall (43 m) wind tower — another high-tech version of something seen in traditional Arabic design — that can funnel even more breezes to the street. The tower also has glowing LED lights that run down its spine and let Masdar managers know how much energy the city is consuming. Blue means Masdar is within its goal of using 50% less energy than a comparable settlement. Red means it's time to turn off the lights.

That's the theory — but in practice, those goals aren't always easy for Masdar to meet, at least not by design alone. Martyn Potter, Masdar's director of operations and facilities, noted that most Abu Dhabi citizens are used to keeping their air-conditioning as low as 60°F (15.5°C) — it helps that electricity is heavily subsidized — but in Masdar, AC needs to be set closer to 77°F (25°C) to keep within its efficiency targets. With the ability to monitor exactly how much electricity every room in the city is using, Potter can keep citizens in line. "It's name and shame," he says. "I'm a green policeman."

That might be work in a controlled environment — especially one whose residents are working on sustainability. But it demonstrates that even the best green buildings with the best technology work less well when the X factor of actual occupants is included. Some behavior change is necessary — a useful lesson for future green-city planners. The weather can be as hard to predict as the people: the 10-megawatt solar-photovoltaic (PV) field just outside Masdar, which supplies much of the city's power, works a lot less well when occasional sandstorms muck up the solar cells, reducing their efficiency. The solution was simple — the panels needed to be cleaned regularly with rags — and the experience will be handy for the next Middle Eastern community that tries to scale up solar PV.

Will Masdar City ever really develop the authenticity of a real city? It's impossible to predict now, but it's difficult to imagine. The behavioral regulations and controlled design that keep Masdar green might also limit the free and serendipitous qualities that mark a living city — not to mention discouraging potential residents who might not want to follow such a strict rulebook. Yet even if Masdar City fails to become everything its planners dreamed when it was launched in 2007, the project will still have enormous value as a living lab for green, potentially far-out ideas that can be underwritten with Abu Dhabi's oil money. "What we're learning at Masdar no one else knows yet," Al Jaber told me. "Masdar will be the global platform to test this technology."

Some of Masdar's technology — like those slightly silly PRT cars — may not have a future. But other ideas — like the wind tower or those sunlight-deflecting windows — will have real value at a time when more than half the world's population lives in cities, a proportion that is growing every day. No one knows the answer to the energy and climate challenges the planet faces, which is why experiments count — even the ones in the desert.