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Towards Renewables in the UAE
Sarah Rich, 13 Mar 07
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The United Arab Emirates are seeing an astonishing explosion of building and development right now: Zaha Hadid's semi-biomorphic Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre; what will soon be the world's tallest building in Dubai; and the astounding/appalling man-made island development, The World, where a series of islands will recreate a map of the world in the Arabian Gulf (a different kind of "terraforming" than we've previously discussed).

All of it comes with a lining of luxury and a sense that the oil-rich UAE will be the 21st century's cosmopolitan trophy. But it also looks like it'll be the next Vegas, kicked up many notches; and another fantasyland of faux iconic structures in the middle of another desert doesn't sound like what the planet needs right now. A New York Times article a few days ago characterized the Vegasization of nearby Mecca as disastrous.

Fortunately, there are groups in the UAE who see that halting high-impact development and working towards greener building and operating strategies has to happen before the mushroom cloud of growth has finished its first spurt. Recently, word spread that Abu Dhabi plans to build a $350 million solar power plant. In a place that reaches 130 degrees fahrenheit in summer months, the plan makes a whole lot of sense, both because air conditioning demands skyrocket in that kind of heat, and because the scorching sun is a massive untapped energy source.

The region has been focusing for the better part of a year on renewable energy technology and improved resource management, under the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company's Masdar Initiative, which sets aside space and funding for R&D in renewables and efficiency. In addition, in the next two years, MIT will partner with Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company to establish the UAE's first ever research institution dedicated to graduate research in sustainability and renewable energy. According to MIT's news release:

The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology is envisioned as the centerpiece of a multifaceted, regional economic development program-the Masdar Initiative-announced in April 2006 by the Abu Dhabi government.
"MIT faculty and staff will provide advice, scholarly assessment and assistance in connection with the establishment of the Masdar Institute," said MIT Chancellor Phillip Clay. "This includes working with ADFEC to develop collaborative research and create indigenous academic programs, to create a strategy for commercializing Masdar Institute's research results and to build the institute's organizational and administrative capabilities."

All of this news, which emerged in the last two weeks, was oddly countered by an announcement just yesterday that Halliburton is moving its headquarters from Houston to Dubai, where the company can more directly push business opportunities in the region. According to the Times, it's viewed as a great chance for Dubai to work towards its goal of maturing into a "regional commercial center on par with Singapore and Hong Kong."

So like everywhere, the race is heating up (along with the planet) to see if renewable energy initiatives can outrun the shadow of big energy corporations who still want to capitalize on hydrocarbons until the bitter end. I will be traveling to Dubai and neighboring Sharjah next month for a design conference and I'll report back on any observations I'm able to make during my short trip about the rapid transformation occurring there.


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I'm skeptical. A year or so ago I read about the huge resort they were building out in the water...and among other playgrounds for the rich was an indoor ski slope. Yeah, that's what the planet needs: a ski slope in the middle of the desert, requiring 24/7 energy attention. But, maybe there is hope. I'll look forward to your report.

Posted by: Marcy on 13 Mar 07

Interesting article Sarah.

I live in Abu Dhabi and am involved in the creation of a Jatropha biodiesel venture in the MENA region. We have been speaking with the guys at the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company over the last six months about their potential involvement in plantations in UAE and Oman.

The approach that ADFEC is taking to the issue of sustainable energy is very comprehensive and I am a fan. Whilst I can understand the skepticism that might arise due to the sometimes ridiculous disneyland-style developments also occuring in this country, it must be noted that these guys in Abu Dhabi are absolute pragmatists when it comes to renewables.

The father of the nation, Sheikh Zayed Al Nayhan, always said that the country must plan for the day that oil runs out. Visionary kind of guy, in so many ways. And his kids, who run the show now, have continued to push that message.

The underlying rationale for the Masdar Initiative is a sober assessment of the global energy markets. Oil will not run out for some time, but over the next fifty? years it will make a diminishing proportional contribution to the overall energy markets.

So if you are a country now that has a roughly 10% share of global energy markets (ie oil & gas), then you would naturally seek to preserve and potentially increase your share of the future global energy market. Hence the dive into solar, biofuels, hydrogen, wind, advanced desal etc etc.

These guys are motivated, intelligent, cashed up, and have support at the highest levels.

Watch this space three years hence.

Posted by: Greg on 16 Mar 07



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