“Welcome to the coolest part of Masdar City.” Dressed in a dark suit and shades, Steve Severance means that literally. Or so it seems, anyway: my phone says I should be melting in 34ºC heat, yet I’m cool. Oddly cool. So is everyone else: the jumpsuit janitor outside the Siemens building, the tech student in hijab and heels at the cafe opposite – here we all are, outside, chill, in the desert heat. And no one’s weirded out by it, either. Except me, that is. So, what’s going on? Severance, my guide for the morning, and Masdar’s head of programme management since 2009, explains: “I guess you could say we started with a simple proposition: how would you build a sustainable city, from scratch, in this environment, without air-conditioning?” Answer: shift the orientation of the city 45 degrees to catch prevailing winds; set buildings close together to create narrow, shaded, walkable streets; add sun-shades to windows; oh, and erect a 45m wind tower, a modern reboot of a traditional Arab design, that draws cool air from the sky and brings it down to Masdar’s streets. “We did everything we could to keep the sun out,” says Severance. And it’s working, really working. While in downtown Abu Dhabi the temperature can hit the mid-thirties, in Masdar, the felt temperature can be up to 10ºC lower. “And you want to know the best bit about all that?” asks Severance. “All those things are absolutely free. There’s no magic formula, no rocket science; it’s just good design. Smart, sustainable design.”
Around 17km from the centre of Abu Dhabi, Masdar City (as distinct from its builder, Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company) was originally conceived over a decade ago. Billed as the world’s first large-scale, zero-carbon community, the idea was to create a kind of sustainable, car-free eco-topia; powered by solar, it would be a living totem of the UAE’s intention to shift from oil to renewable energy, casting Abu Dhabi as an environmental early adopter, and setting new standards for low-resource living all over the world. And that was in 2006. A full year before the first iPhone was released. YouTube was two years old. Ambitious? You bet. Successful? Well, yes and no. Not everything worked out as planned, says Severance. “The 2008 financial crisis hit us pretty hard.” Still, unlike other real estate developments in the region, it didn’t KO the project entirely. But it did slow it down. That’s why today residents are still counted in hundreds, not thousands; and it’s not “no carbon” but “low carbon”. Even so, there have been significant wins: Masdar is now home to companies like Siemens and organisations like the International Renewable Energy Agency, and has spawned the Masdar Institute for Science and Technology, the world’s first postgraduate university dedicated to advanced energy development. It also uses around 50 per cent less electricity, water and air-conditioning than the Abu Dhabi average, a so-called “greenprint” that can be used to develop other real estate.
Most importantly, it exists; it happened. Which, for Masdar’s chief architect, Gerard Evenden of Foster + Partners, might be its biggest coup, “because lots of people talk about sustainable developments but, so far, very few have built anything,” he says, from his office in London. “But Masdar has set the benchmark for the world; it’s set the benchmark for the way forward.”
“It’s been a journey,” agrees Yousef Baselaib, executive director of sustainable real estate, at his desk in Masdar. And, even if the route has changed, he adds, the wheels are still most definitely turning. In fact, Masdar might be about to see the most rapid development since it first broke ground in 2008. Around 750,000m2 is set to be completed in the near future. That includes Masdar Institute Neighbourhood, a whole new residential zone due for completion in 2020; a new, solar-powered mall set to open in 2018; as well as a new underground metro that will connect Masdar with downtown Abu Dhabi. There are also plans to expand the city’s driverless pods. Started in 2010, these small, magnet-powered cyber-carriages move passengers around the city on demand. It’s reckoned they’ve done more than two million trips. And they look every bit as sci-fi as they sound. Still, a reboot of the system will be announced at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week in January.
The price Masdar tendered for green energy changed the whole industry
Masdar also has new residents: new start-up incubator-co-work space Krypto Labs opened in September, and has serious financial backing to nurture the country’s new wave of entrepreneurs. Other new arrivals have slightly less lofty goals but are no less popular, it turns out: Skinny Genie is a health-food cafe straight out of Brooklyn, Berlin or anywhere where the nut-free salads come in mason jars with a list of food intolerances you didn’t know existed. Only a week old, it’s already a hit with the locals. Except one, perhaps. “Oh, it’s welcome,” jokes Severance. “But I gotta say, Jim’s Kitchen Table is going to take some beating.”
Of course, Masdar won’t be the only eco-city in the world for long. In November, Google signed a deal to recast an area of Toronto as a bot-powered, data-driven futurescape. China’s solar-powered “forest city” is expected to be finished by 2020. Even so, Masdar isn’t just a bricks-and-mortar showpiece, says Baselaib, but a boundary-pushing future-energy company that has been huge in raising the profile of renewables. “Ten years ago nobody was talking about clean energy,” he says. “What we’ve achieved, not just for Masdar but the sector itself, is phenomenal.” Architect Gerard Evenden agrees. There was nothing obvious, he says, or inevitable for a state with the eighth biggest oil reserves in the world spending $18 billion to build a clean-tech eco-polis from scratch 11 years ago. He’s got a point: back then, the price of oil was at an all-time high; the UAE economy was booming. “It was revolutionary: this idea that the oil is running out, we need an alternative. And now that’s become reality across the Middle East.” And, indeed, the world. Masdar is now a serious global player that has set record low prices for solar energy not once but twice. The first was for 800MW Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai, where Masdar won the contract to supply energy at 2.99 US cents per kilowatt hour.
Speaking to Arabian Business in September, Masdar’s CEO, Mohamed Jameel Al Ramahi, said it was a game-changer. “The price we tendered not only changed the way people look at Masdar; it changed the whole industry. Everybody was talking about it, worldwide.” Announced this year, Masdar’s second record was for Saudi Arabia’s first solar project. The price: an unheard of 1.79 US cents. Wrapping up the tour, Severance likens the revolution in energy to that in home computing. Standing at the edge of the city, we look out into the horizon. “You see that lake over there?” I play along, but it’s actually Masdar’s 22-hectare solar field, shimmering in the heat. “Well, 10 years ago, that was the largest renewable energy station in the MENA region. That’s from here to Morocco. Now, if you’d have told me then, that by 2018 we could do something 30 times that size, and that we could do it at less than two US cents per kilowatt hour, I would’ve said, ‘No way. You. Are. In. Sane.’ But it’s happened. It’s happening. This is the future.” And it’s cool. Oddly cool.