masdar: we built this city on dust and oil

In 2025, the world’s ‘most sustainable’ city will open its doors for all to judge. Masdar City, when it is built, will rely entirely on solar energy and other renewable energy sources, with an ecology based around zero waste and zero carbon.

Masdar is situated a few kilometers downtown of Abu Dhabi, out in the United Arab Emirates. The world’s sixth-largest oil producer developing this trailblazing clean-technology hub is nothing short of ironic. It’s a bit like gas guzzler meets hydrogen hybrid: uneasy bedfellows.

So lets take a closer look. The city, which will house 40,000 residents and hundreds of businesses, will integrate a broad range of renewable energy and sustainability technologies. It will also host a leading research institute to pioneer and test-bed innovation in this field.

Build work is already six years in, project budget is a whopping $19bn. Sustainability doesn’t come cheap, which is why perhaps only an Emirates state could afford to engage in such an experiment. The main source of power will be a 60MW solar power plant, with plans for more as the city grows. There will also be wind farms, geothermal energy plants, waste incineration, and grey water recycling.

Incineration is certainly not the greenest form of waste-to-energy recovery, so already I’m a bit dubious. Probing further, the city’s first landfill diversion target will be only 50% – so true zero waste to landfill status is going to take time to kick in. How long, the developers don’t say.

The real question for me is whether Masdar is part of a genuine attempt at a national defossilisation strategy or a one-off green poster boy campaign. Will the city produce anything worthwhile to justify its bloated price tag – will it become economically sustainable in itself as a metropolis? The very fact of where it is located sends a slightly subversive signal I think.

That said, global brands are already falling over themselves to be associated with the flagship project. Major partners include Siemens, who will establish its Middle East headquarters and R&D centre of excellence within the city, General Electric who will build its first ecoimagination centre there, and others – BASF, Schneider, the list goes on.

Admittedly if it works, Masdar could become a future template for sustainable urban regeneration in the built environment. The outcomes from the R&D side will make interesting reading. But surely it is culturally better to rebuild and retrofit existing cities – not build a new one from scratch.

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