Abu Dhabi: An Oil Giant Dreams Green

The gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi got rich on the back of black gold, but its planned carbon-free city could represent the future of environmentalism

  • Foster & Partners

    These panels will help offset the energy used in the construction of Masdar City.

    Sami Khoreibi can't stop smiling. The baby-faced CEO of Enviromena Power Systems, Khoreibi launched his business a little over a year ago. Now he is looking over a 10-MW solar farm in the desert outside the city of Abu Dhabi, with row after row of solar panels angled to the Middle Eastern sun like bathers lying poolside. The solar farm is the earliest tangible part of Abu Dhabi's Masdar City, a $22 billion project designed to be the world's first zero-carbon-footprint, zero-waste settlement--the embodiment of this oil-rich Arab city's surprisingly green dreams. "This is bringing attention and capital from around the world to Abu Dhabi," says Khoreibi. "We're going to use this as a launching pad for clean development."

    Abu Dhabi is the last place you might expect to find the future of environmentalism. The wealthy capital of the United Arab Emirates is the world's eighth biggest producer of petroleum. But the leaders of Abu Dhabi know--perhaps better than most--that the oil won't last forever, so they have embarked on the Masdar Initiative, a multibillion-dollar push to establish the emirate as a center for clean-technology development and innovation. Those plans include Masdar City, designed by British architect Norman Foster, as well as a $250 million clean-tech investment fund and an energy-engineering school linked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If it all works, this desert emirate could become the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy and a living model for the way technological innovation could defuse the threat of climate change. "This is really a very powerful image," says Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "It clearly shows that a country that has no immediate economic need to diversify its energy production is willing and able to do so."

    Abu Dhabi's leadership is all the more necessary at a moment when once vibrant green businesses are flagging, thanks in part to the plummeting price of oil. In the U.S. and Europe, new wind- and solar-power installations are slowing, energy start-ups are starving for funds and some green companies are laying off workers. But it's still full speed ahead in Abu Dhabi, where last month's World Future Energy Summit (WFES) attracted more than 16,000 visitors and companies that ranged from General Motors to modest Chinese solar manufacturers. And with a new Administration in Washington struggling to keep its own ambitious green agenda on track, Abu Dhabi kept the momentum going at WFES by announcing that at least 7% of its electricity would come from renewable sources by 2020, up from nothing today. Nor, said Masdar officials, would the recession have a major impact on the emirate's plans, announced last year, to invest $15 billion in clean energy--an amount equal to what President Barack Obama has suggested spending annually for the entire U.S. "We are looking beyond the current financial crisis," says Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, Masdar's CEO. "But all our projects are still proceeding."

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