Oil-Rich Abu Dhabi Builds Renewable-Energy City In the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi sits on nearly 10 percent of the world's oil reserves. So it may be surprising to hear that climate leaders there have launched a major initiative in sustainability. Masdar, a demonstration city of 50,000 inhabitants, will have a zero carbon footprint.
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Oil-Rich Abu Dhabi Builds Renewable-Energy City

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Oil-Rich Abu Dhabi Builds Renewable-Energy City

Oil-Rich Abu Dhabi Builds Renewable-Energy City

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The builders of a brand-new city want to make their mark on the world by making no mark at all. The city is in a desert near the Persian Gulf, in the oil-producing state of Abu Dhabi. And if you believe the promotional video, the city will have no carbon footprint.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man (Actor): Imagine?

INSKEEP: Abu Dhabi imagines an entire city that releases no greenhouse gas.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man: Imagine a place where the challenge of living in an extreme climate is overcome at no cost to the environment.

INSKEEP: The place is called Masdar City. When it's built, and Abu Dhabi has the money to build it, it's supposed to have 50,000 inhabitants. NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca went there for our series Climate Connections with National Geographic. And Joe, how did this project get started?

JOE PALCA: Well, the leaders of Abu Dhabi wanted to get into the alternative energy field, and they looked around the world to see where there was the Silicon Valley of alternative energy, and there wasn't one. So they said, okay, we'll build it here.

INSKEEP: And I suppose they got plenty of silicon since it's in the middle of the desert.

PALCA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: But setting that aside for a moment, why would Abu Dhabi, which is part of the United Arab Emirates, which has something like 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, get into the subject of carbon footprints and alternative energy?

PALCA: Yeah, I mean it's the obvious question, Steve, and I was going to ask Sultan Jaber, who is the CEO of Masdar Initiative, exactly that. And as I say, I was going to ask him, but he beat me to it.

Mr. SULTAN JABER (CEO, Masdar Initiative): Why is Abu Dhabi doing this? The answer is very simple. Number one, because we can; number two, because we should, and because we believe that it's a natural extension for our involvement in the energy markets.

INSKEEP: A natural extension for Abu Dhabi's energy industry? Does he mean when the oil runs out, they want to be able to do something else?

PALCA: Yeah, imagine thinking that far in advance, but that's what they say they're doing. But there is another reason, Steve.

Mr. KHALED AWAD (Engineer): Abu Dhabi wanted to show that it's aware of its carbon footprint today.

PALCA: So that's Khaled Awad. He's this Lebanese-trained engineer. He's the guy who's in charge of building the city. He's the first one there in the morning and the last one to leave at the end of the day.

Mr. AWAD: We thought this was an ideal opportunity. I mean, for an oil producer to try to become a leader in renewable energy and sustainability was something really fascinating.

INSKEEP: Fascinating if you have the money to do it.

PALCA: Yeah, and they do. I mean, as you said, this is an oil-producing nation. They're making a lot of money, and they've taken $4 billion in cash and they're planning to raise another 18 billion, and Khaled says it's a very calculated decision to spend this much on this Masdar City.

Mr. AWAD: I think this is exactly what we wanted to do, is to show people that, look, we're serious about this. We're going to put so much resources to do it right, and we want you to come and join us there, and then they will start doing it with us.

INSKEEP: So every time we put $3.50 gas in our SUVs, a little slice of it may be going back to Abu Dhabi and building this sustainable city, and how much interest is it generating around the world?

PALCA: Well, it is getting quite a bit of interest. One of the first people to get on board with this was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. They get a lot of people who say we want to partner with you, but MIT was interested in this whole renewability thing. So they're helping Masdar make an institute that will do renewable energy.

And they've also got a lot of attention from architects. Foster and Partners in England is one of the firms that's involved. They've designed the initial plans for Masdar.

You know, I talked to this Nadar Ardelon(ph). He's an architect and a professor of architecture at Harvard, and he understands that Abu Dhabi would like to do something about its carbon footprint, and he says Masdar City is a start.

Mr. NADAR ARDELON (Harvard University): This is really an experimental town. It's a little town. It has 50,000 people. In Abu Dhabi, which is, you know, growing to be past a million people, this is a drop in the bucket, but this is a very important, precious drop.

PALCA: And Ardelon says he understands why an oil-rich country would want to do this kind of project.

Mr. ARDELON: The people in the oil-producing world want to be considered in a different light. They want to not be viewed as Bedouins. They want to be viewed as people of conscience and of education.

INSKEEP: Although I guess they have to now figure out what that looks like physically when you build a brand-new city from scratch in the desert.

PALCA: Right, right, and the interesting thing is that Ardelon says, you know, it's going to help Abu Dhabi, but it's also going to help people in the West.

Mr. ARDELON: Because many of us are being invited to design these buildings, and from these, whether they're successful, and some mistakes will be made, we'll be able to learn a lot, and I think we can then transfer this back to America, which is sort of funny, because normally the transfer has been American technology, Western technology going to the East.

INSKEEP: That's one of many architects intrigued by a plan to build a brand-new city in the desert in the Persian Gulf state of Abu Dhabi. And Joe Palca, I'd like to know, if you get in a taxi, if you say take me to Masdar City right now, what do you see?

PALCA: Well, the first thing, the taxi gets lost because there's nothing to see yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: That's what happened to us, anyway. But when you do get there, it's just basically a sign and a couple of construction trailers, but even when you see the construction trailers, you know it's something different because instead of just a bunch of trailers sitting next to a vacant lot, it's got this giant tent over it.

INSKEEP: Why a tent?

PALCA: Well, they can save about 10 degrees of cooling because it's cooler inside these construction trailers simply because of the tent.

INSKEEP: Because construction trailers are cooler because there's this shield over them.

PALCA: Exactly. The other thing that's kind of interesting, and the tent is a good example of this, is that they are taking old-fashioned approaches to solving these modern problems. So even though the city itself will be completely modern, it won't look that different because when they went to build it, they realized that people in the Middle East had already figured out some of these ways to save energy.

I talked with this guy, Peter Sharrett(ph). He's an energy consultant with the British firm called WSP, and it's one of the firms responsible for doing the design work at Masdar.

Mr. PETER SHARRETT (WSP): The visible part of the city is really a reinterpretation of an Arab town. The streets are narrow, they reflect and diffuse direct sunlight. They create shaded areas. We create microclimates by using water. We create areas where people can walk in a very hot environment.

The biggest thing that you don't see so much of, those are what we call the clever technologies, the energy systems, the distributions, the networks that make all of the city hang together.

PALCA: So what Sharrett's saying is they're going to use traditional methods to make a livable city in a beastly hot environment, but they're going to use some really clever technologies too.

INSKEEP: What sort of clever technologies?

PALCA: Well, I'm going to talk more about that in tomorrow's story, but I'll tell you about one today. It's called the Personal Rapid Transit System. These are - it's a kind of a public transport, but instead of buses with fixed routes and gas engines, these are pods, solar-powered pods. You've seen "The Jetsons?"

INSKEEP: Oh sure, yeah.

PALCA: So it's like "The Jetsons." You get into one of these pods, you punch in your destination, and off you go.

INSKEEP: How can that save energy, though, if people are going individually in different places?

PALCA: Well, solar-powered, more efficient. You don't need to fill up a whole bus for getting three people across town. It makes more sense.

INSKEEP: Or even have a gas-guzzling taxi cab, for that matter.

PALCA: You got it.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joe Palca. We'll be listening for more tomorrow, thanks.

PALCA: I'll be here.

INSKEEP: The efficient way to keep up on climate change is to listen to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. You can read our year-long series on the effects of climate change at npr.org/climateconnections.

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