As far as the UAE and energy are concerned, the first image that generally comes to mind is oil. As one of the OPEC nations, the UAE possesses nearly 8% of the world’s oil reserves and almost all of its energy requirements are met by oil and other fossil fuels. The UAE has one of the highest per capita energy consumption and carbon dioxide emission levels in the world. This is exhibited by the fact that nearly all buildings are air-conditioned to counter the grueling heat in the region and most of its water requirements are met by energy-intensive water desalination plants. Given the UAE’s poor track record as far as environmental sustainability is concerned, recent initiatives announced by the government to promote the use of renewable energy have been met with a degree of cynicism. The emirate of Abu Dhabi has announced ambitious plans to transform the energy consumption patterns in the country. One of the cornerstone projects is the Masdar Initiative which was launched in 2006.
The initiative comprises the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), Masdar City and an investment arm which aims to increase investment in environment friendly technologies. The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which was inaugurated in November last year, has entered into a partnership with MIT to promote higher education and research at the graduate level in the fields of alternative energy and environmental sustainability. The project that has attracted the most attention is Masdar City, a $22 billion project, is being touted as the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste ecology. It is expected to cover an area of around 6.6 square kilometers (2.55 square miles) and house close to 40,000 residents and 1500 businesses. The city is expected to be the bastion of energy conservation and environmental efficiency. No cars will be allowed in the city and residents will have to avail of Personal Rapid Transit systems, a solar powered vehicle that can travel up to 25 miles an hour. The city will have a boundary wall and narrow, shaded streets to help channel cool breezes from one part of the city to the other. Masdar has also entered into a joint venture with Total of France and Spain’s Abengoa Solar to develop a $600 million solar power plant which will have a capacity of 100 MW and is expected to be the largest solar power plant in the world. In January, the Masdar Institute declared that the city was producing more energy than it consumed. The project, which is part of Abu Dhabi’s plan of attaining 7% renewable power generating capacity by the end of this decade is undoubtedly ambitious. However, recent developments seem to indicate that the oil rich emirate is serious about reducing its reliance on fossil fuels and promoting environmental sustainability.
There have also been other developments that indicate the UAE’s desire to establish itself as a hub for renewable energy. Abu Dhabi hosted the World Future Energy Summit this January and the Masdar Institute has initiated the Young Future Energy Leaders program. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has also shifted its headquarters to Abu Dhabi. The Masdar Initiative has drawn praise from different quarters. British Prime Minister, David Cameron deemed the project as “revolutionary” and said that much could be learnt from the example set by the UAE. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton also showered accolades on the initiative and said that the US was willing to support the UAE in its efforts to promote the use of alternative energy. During a visit to the project site in January, she said that the UAE was well poised to compete and thrive in the twenty first century.
However, the path ahead for UAE is not one of primroses. Masdar city is primarily a pilot project and it is uncertain whether the ideas generated at Masdar can be implemented in industries and businesses in the UAE. Given the availability of cheap oil and natural gas, it will be difficult for the emissions driven industrial sector to transition from fossil fuels to other non-conventional sources of energy. In fact, the Mubadala Development Company, the investment vehicle of the Abu Dhabi government that owns Masdar, is planning to construct the world’s largest aluminum smelter not too far away from Masdar City. The UAE, though, has a decent track record of completing projects that may have seemed outlandish at the outset. The project is still in its early stages and it will be interesting to see the degree of impact the Masdar Initiative will have in changing the energy landscape of not only the country but also the rest of the world.