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Report from the World Future Energy Summit, Abu Dhabi
Brittany Jacobs, 28 Jan 09


Before the 1950s, the desert city of Abu Dhabi was a vastly different place, characterized by grass huts, nomadic tribes, and a simpler way of life. Fast forward six decades past oil discovery, and you will find all the manufactured glitz and glamour of a modern-day Las Vegas; world-class hotels, unprecedented development, and an incredible amount of wealth. Abu Dhabi is now the capitol of the United Arab Emirates, which claims the world’s third largest GDP (behind Luxemburg and Norway) and the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, currently estimated at $875 billion.

Last week, General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, hosted the World Future Energy Summit, in partnership with Masdar, the $22 billion project that is set to be the first zero-carbon footprint, zero-waste, totally renewably powered settlement. The Summit brought in more than 16,000 delegates and heavy hitters from around the globe including Tony Blair, Vivienne Cox, head of renewables at BP, and Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands. During the three days I spent at the conference, surrounded by a city full of bling, Bentleys, and burgeoning landscapes, I discovered a multitude of new technologies all contributing to the future of energy innovation.

Technological Highlights

A New Kind of Factory Farm
With people around the globe flocking to urban areas in record numbers, the call for city-based farming solutions continues to grow louder. Mitsubishi Chemical Company showcased their vegetable factory, which is built into a 40-foot long shipping container, and which features the latest in solar, LED technology, and high-tech hydroponics (pictured below). The factory is capable of producing a wide range of vegetables, including various types of lettuce, arugula and mustard greens. As food safety concerns continue to rise, you can expect the container factories to make a big splash in dense urban areas after their launch at the end of 2009.


Getting Water from Thin Air
“Drinking water produced from the air we breathe,” is the catchy tagline from H2hOme, an Italian company, whose air to water appliance could change the way we gather around the water cooler for our daily workplace gossip. As moisture-rich air contacts the system's condenser, pure water droplets are extracted. Minerals are added to the condensed water and a filter removes all bacteria, making it safe for human consumption. Any technologies incorporating water creation and purification are sure to be successful in years to come, as our natural water sources become more and more stretched due to wasteful use, pollution and a growing population.

Industrial-Scale Recyling
Resource Recycling Industries is taking an innovative approach to recycling used tires, rubber, and biomass with their Berahn recycling system. The system not only handles all the rubber associated with old tires, but also the metal from the rims, making separation prior to recycling unnecessary. The byproduct is high-quality carbon that can be used for water treatment, soil treatment, cleanup of oil spills on sea and land, and as an insulation material in construction projects.

IMG_0883_robot_208.jpgJetsons-style Personal Assistant
The Pal Robotics Reem-B Humanoid Robot (pictured at right) is a service robot with the capacity for facial recognition, designed to help humans with daily tasks like reminding us of important appointments. The robot caused quite a stir at the summit, as viewers watched it walk independently, grab and lift objects, and accept voice commands. The eerily human Reem-B called to my mind sci-fi visions of robots taking over the world … or at least many cubicles.

Executives at Masdar awarded the first Zayed Future Energy Prize of $1.5 million to Dipal Barua, a Bangladeshi man and founder of Grameen Shakti, a non-profit that has enabled hundreds of thousands of rural poor to purchase solar energy systems. The award was created as an incentive to speed up the search for clean energy to address global warming. (Read more about Grameen Shakti in the Worldchanging archives.)

The Zayed Award, along with the Summit itself conveyed a carefully orchestrated picture of Abu Dhabi's optimism and dedication when it comes to green energy. As innovative and eye-opening as the technologies showcased at the Summit were, I am still curious as to what the future of this region will look like as this conservative, oil-rich state with little public transport and $.45 per gallon gasoline strives to position itself front and center on the renewable stage. They must see the long-term value in investing in forward thinking clean energy, but it seems like one critical component -- transportation solutions -- has been neglected in the mix.

While the Summit featured some talk about alternative fuels and electric vehicles, any vision of clean transportation was handily overshadowed by new solar, wind and hydro technologies. Abu Dhabi itself has an ever-growing, car-centric culture that's hard to believe when you know that 50 years ago, none of this was here. When asking for directions on the street, I was repeatedly told that locations within one or two kilometers were much too far for me to walk. Development is still happening at such a rapid rate here that new policies and innovations could have a huge impact on transportation habits. But there was little sign that developers here were interested in investing in that path.

Top photo credit: flickr/aekpani, CC license.

Additional photos: Brittany Jacobs

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Good for Abu Dhabi. However, both wind and solar are vulnerable to everything from sandstorms to volcanic eruptions which have the potential to effectively block out the sun for years, and send tiny slivers of volcanic glass into turbines, destroying their engines. Why are more people not talking about geothermal as a more viable alternative energy? As long as there is magma in the mantle, geothermal will remain an available and practical energy source. How can we not be looking more consistently in this direction?

Posted by: Beverly Rupp on 30 Jan 09

amazing - but, as Beverly addressed, the answers are usually right under our feet.

Posted by: Stephanie Sulger on 30 Jan 09

Sorry. Not impressed that Abu Dhabi can use a small part of its enormous discretionary wealth to build a 0 footprint (questionable) settlement. Show me something that can be implemented in Bangladesh. Show me some way to transform Tucson, AZ into a sustainable urban area. This is a game played by billionaires following high tech, glitz route that has little if any impact on their living habits. Fine for Abu Dhabi. What about the other six and a half billion?

Posted by: John Faust on 30 Jan 09

John you make some great points, however, I live here and have done so for a number of years. The environmental record from this region is appalling, to say the least. To see that they are even thinking about renewables is a step in the right direction but you are right there is a huge elitest spin on these types of technologies, especially here where they would be seen as trendy and cutting edge....not essentials. As long as you have an economy that is so vested in carbon based fuels, you will never have a true green revolution. This has just started to begin because in due time this region will no longer be net exporters of crude, they will need the energy just to fuel the massive development and projects they have locally. Trailblazers and pioneers in this realm will come from other places. I am certain of that.

Posted by: Paige McDicken on 30 Jan 09

I managed to snag a spy photo of the abovementioned air to water appliance:

Posted by: George on 2 Feb 09

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