The Zero Net Carbon City of Masdar and the Dubai Credit Crisis

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What will the impacts be of the Dubai credit crisis on Masdar City, the famous living sustainability lab being built in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), with the goal of being a zero-net carbon city?

So far the UAE capital city-state of Abu Dhabi, backed by significant revenues from oil production and collateral from reserves, has escaped the financial panic that has gripped neighboring Dubai. This bodes well for Masdar City, to which Abu Dhabi pledged $15 billion in investments; some are predicting the Dubai domino effect will not stir up dust in Masdar.

Abu Dhabi is looking at Masdar as being an international crucible for renewable energy and other sustainability technologies so that the UAE can make the transition from relying exclusively on fossil fuels to exporting technologies for future low-carbon/ low-water global energy and resource needs.

Masdar, which will have about 55,000 residents when complete before 2020, is notable in that it is serving as a large-scale test bed for new technologies in renewable energy, passive wind cooling, advanced materials design, innovative car-free transportation, water conservation and local food production.

The project is financed by funds through partners such as Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse and is being developed with technology corporations such as General Electric, the anchor tenant in Masdar’s Ecoimagination Center.

The Masdar Institute, which started classes this fall, is backed in a cooperative agreement with MIT (The MIT Technology Review is the source above that predicted things will be hunky dory in Masdar despite Dubai’s situation).

In terms of financing, The Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, which is the government entity behind Masdar, announced in late September that it was seeking $600 million over seven years to fund construction of Masdar, where ground was first broken earlier this year. The government reported that it was not seeking an estimated $18 billion to finance the project, a figure that was published in other media reports.

Carbon credits and trading represents another form of project financing for Masdar. Last month Masdar was required by the United Nations to resubmit four out of six its carbon credit schemes that were part of the Clean Development Mechanism program of the Kyoto Protocol under the UN, which will become active in earning credits in June of next year.

Masdar is currently engaged in a wide assortment of R&D, including working with the nation of Spain to test large-scale concentrated PV solar power production in semi-tropical desert conditions. Masdar features some 30 manufacturers of PV and thermal solar products testing more than 40 solar related technologies alone.

With GE, the city is testing smart-grid technologies, including smart appliances, for home energy monitoring and energy conservation, among other technologies.

It seems that Masdar represents a completely different mindset than the ‘build it and they will come” approach taken in Dubai.

Instead of Dubai’s living-for-today mentality with giant indoor ski slopes and man-made islands built in the desert for jet-setting tourists, Masdar is more about channeling global innovation for both the future of its own nation’s economy and the growing demands of the world.

Still, many interested in clean technologies and sustainable cities will be watching Masdar  closely during the next few months to look for signs of how a critical sustainability innovation ecosystem will survive the stress tests of a volatile global financial ecosystem.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute

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Where are New Green Cities and How Can They Curb Asian Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

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Masdar Headquarters, Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

In my previous post, I highlighted how growing Asian urbanization is expected to contribute more than half of the world’s growth in greenhouse gases over the next 20 years. Now I will review what’s being attempted in Asian cities and elsewhere in order to positively alter that disturbing forecast.

The US and other Western nations are by no means immune from culpability in global climate change, since the US and Europe have contributed most of the existing excess greenhouse gases (GHGs) in our global climate over the last 100 years.

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Because of that history, the onus is upon more developed parts of world, including North America, Europe and parts of Asia, to help plan and develop models for new cities in Asia. These models need to take into account climate change, local culture, the latest IT and communications technologies, and more.

New cities or districts must not be only be low- or zero-carbon, they must also address climate change adaptation, which in practical terms means designing for water and food security and natural disaster risk management.

What are the best global models that Asia should draw upon? Masdar, in the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi), is one good model, though its small expected total population (50,000) and unique design can’t scale up to Asian-sized growth requirements.     

Masdar is piloting scores of new designs and technologies that reduce energy use, particularly in passive energy reduction (cooling and solar) and PV solar. Masdar also reduces water use with information system-linked leak-detecting sensors and by recycling dew. This desert-located site even recycles ambient moisture in the indoor air, which includes evaporated human sweat. 

Besides the techno-wizardry, Masdar offers economic sustainability, through a viable financing “eco-system”: it has created a tax free-foreign enterprise zone that has drawn in support from General Electric, Credit Suisse and the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism.

South Korea’s Songdo International Business District is planned to reduce energy use 30 percent in every building through the use of double building skins combined with sophisticated information technology and communications control systems. Songdo is on a scale to which China can relate, with 60,000 residents and 300,000 workers expected by completion in 2015.

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Songdo rises in South Korea (New York Times photo)

Some Chinese green new city false starts (so far) have included Dongtan and Qingdao Eco-Blocks, both of which were approved or studied by the national and local governments but have so far failed to be greenlighted.

While Dongtan was to be on a scale of 20,000 inhabitants to begin and was mainly to be powered by renewable energy, it had plans of increasing to 500,000 by 2030. That still wasn’t necessarily big enough for the needs of China, which may add 800 million or more people to its cities over the next 30-40 years, many of them in new cities or new city zones of 500,000 to 5 million. Because of local corruption, ground for Dongtan was never broken despite ambitious plans and international project participation from ARUP Engineering.

Qingdao Eco-Blocks, with 2,000 to 100,000 housing units and mixed-use, transit-oriented development, meanwhile, did have modular applicability to Chinese new city development. The Eco-Blocks project, though, did not get slated into Phase 1 of the city’s development pipeline, according to Harrison Fraker, retired professor from UC Berkeley’s Institute of the Environment. While at Berkeley, Fraker and the Institute helped devise the plan for the resource (water, waste, energy) “self-sufficient” city.

It seems the Eco-Blocks were too complex at their present stage of planning to fit into China’s massive national new city construction mechanism, which is constrained by the need for speed. The Eco-Blocks are now being considered as a prototype for NASA Ames research, Fraker said.

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The immediate fate of Tianjin Eco-City has greater potential in China. A Chinese and Singaporean cooperative has been holding design competitions for a large section of Tianjin, the third largest municipality in China, which has an overall population of more than 8 million.     
Besides cultivating financing, the Tianjin Eco-City is attempting to develop sophisticated software that can model the use of materials, energy, water, land, transportation and other resources, in addition to carbon and waste outputs.

Other noteworthy green community models beyond Asia include the Kalundborg (Denmark) Eco-Industrial Park; Hammarby, Sweden; and Kronsberg, Germany.

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Hammarby, Sweden

Kronsberg, a community of 6,600 near Hanover, addresses the critical element of local food with greenhouses using renewable energy, which can offer a large-supply of nutrition requiring less carbon than the transport-heavy global food model.

Combined with the myriad waste re-use and energy generation
opportunities that can come with sustainable organic agriculture and
food processing, the food element has been a significant missing
element in most “eco-cities.”

Kronsberg reduced its greenhouse gases by 45 percent compared to average new construction.This was accomplished through the use of advanced building insulation in concert with district heating systems, which use waste heat from municipal processes to warm water that is piped throughout the community for everyone’s use. The suburban area cut overall per capita CO2 by an estimated 60 percent through
transit oriented development including major bicycle infrastructure.

Reducing the life-cycle impacts of construction and infrastructure materials is another area not being well addressed by current eco-city planning and design–no large-scale pilot projects exist that precisely measure and manage life-cycle material impacts.

If new cities can combine integrated planning for better carbon management, regional food systems, life cycle material impacts, water scarcity and biological/ cultural diversity, they will be much better prepared to host the world’s new majority that is headed their way. 

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