Sunday, March 28, 2010

Masdar - Abu Dhabi: The Silicon Valley of Renewable Energy?

A few weeks ago I had questioned the point and contribution of Dubai's Burj Khalifa - the world's tallest building. Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, can potentially provide a fascinating and productive counter example. Meet Masda City - an eco-city in its early developmental stage, located 11 miles from Abu Dhabi. It is planned to be a zero-carbon city - with no cars and no skyscrapers, and it will utilize mostly solar energy. It is expected to be a compact walled city with about 50,000 inhabitants and a university. The price tag, $22 billion, is indeed high - but if this experiment of renewable energy works, then what a breakthrough! In fact, it is expected to host the headquarters of International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). In addition, it is providing opportunities for Arab students to locally work in cutting-edge science & technology. The project started in 2006 and it is expected to be finished by 2014, though some sections will soon start habitation.
The architects are turning the desert's greatest threat - the sun - into their greatest asset. They have built the biggest solar farm in the Middle East to power the city and to offset the inevitable burning of diesel and baking of cement in construction.

They are also experimenting. One project involves a circular field of mirrors on the ground, all reflecting towards a tower in the middle.

That, in turn, bounces the light down in a concentrated beam about a metre (3ft) wide to produce heat and drive generators.

But I was told firmly not to wander over and feel the warmth, as it could fry me in seconds.

The international team of engineers have real pride in their work.

This is more than building to them, it is a lab bench with the freedom to get it wrong, and Masdar's chief architect Gerard Evenden loves the concentration of expertise: "What Abu Dhabi is beginning to generate is the Silicon Valley of renewable energy."

And here are some common sense measures for the city along with some ambitious ones:

Masdar will have to be low temperature and low carbon.

Part of the solution is apparent the moment you walk in. And you do "walk in" because this is a city surrounded by a wall, a defined boundary.

Unlike the upward and outward sprawl of Dubai or Abu Dhabi, Masdar is compact like ancient Arab cities.

Streets are narrow so buildings shade each other, and the walls and roofs of buildings will do their bit to shed heat too.

The vertical faces are dressed with screens which look like a terracotta mesh. They keep the sun out but let the breeze in.

And as architect Gerard Evenden says: "Lunar technology has begun to influence our thinking."

One idea being tested is using a thin foil surface covering, a gas or vacuum blanket, to keep the heat out. It is an idea dreamt up for a moon base.

To encourage a breeze, wind towers are being built, drawing draughts through the streets without using energy.

Masdar will still use electricity for gadgets, some air conditioning and, most crucially, to desalinate sea water but, when it comes to power, the city has a simple mantra: "Only use energy when you have exhausted design."

Okay - I'm a total sucker for space exploration and science fiction. So I'm totally sold now that they mention influences from Lunar technology. Yes, there will be a gulf (ha!) between planning and reality. However, I think this is the right direction to invest, even if for only experimentation. Hopefully this will not turn into a gimmick for the rich and the celebrities.

Read the full article here. Here is the official website of Masdar City (the videos are a bit erratic there).


emre said...

An eco-city can't be said to be a success if its costs exceed that of a regular city's harm to the environment.

Better this than a phallic skyscraper though.

Salman Hameed said...

Sure - but it can the path-breaker. For example, I'm sure the first hybrid car was waaay more expensive than the ones you can buy today. In the same way much of the money for the initial eco-cities will be going in to resolve issues not encountered before. Unless, of course, if it is all just a gimmick.

Victor Jamieson said...

The opportunity to develop something the whole world can benefit from is truly amazing. What their ads say is actually true: "One day, all cities will be built like this." Maybe not in the next couple of years, but definitely in our lifetimes.

Masdar is the first attempt of its kind (that I know of, anyway) to develop something truly sustainable-- not just for the planet, but also for the balance sheets of the investors!

Anonymous said...

Is the city Masdar the same as Abu Dhabi's energy efficiency initiative “Masdar” mentioned here? What a the further plans?

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