Masdar’s vision is “to make Abu Dhabi the preeminent source of renewable energy knowledge, development and implementation, and the world’s benchmark for sustainable development”. In its endeavour to make this ambition a reality, no stone is left unturned. Masdar’s business divisions and projects span an uncompromisingly broad scope – from research, through investment, to execution – and have helped make it a leading force in renewable energy development worldwide.

Masdar City

The most unique facet of Masdar’s work is probably Masdar City: an entire 6km² city built to demonstrate innovations in sustainable living, in addition to being home to businesses, people and a graduate-level university focused on research.

The mission to build the world’s most sustainable low-carbon city began in 2008 and continues today. Masdar City lives up to that claim in a great number of ways. To start with, its buildings are constructed with 90% recycled aluminium and low-carbon cement, in addition to other locally sourced low-energy construction materials aimed at reducing the city’s embodied carbon emissions. All buildings must meet a minimum Estidama Pearl Rating System certification of three pearls, comparable to Europe’s LEED gold rating. One of the ways this is achieved is by using passive intelligent design to reduce the buildings’ water and energy needs by up to 40%.

Masdar CEO Dr Ahmad Belhoul says the city’s buildings generally exceed even these high standards. “While the minimum standard is three pearls, most buildings meet the requirements for four or five pearls certification, which is equivalent to platinum LEED certification,” he remarks.

“In some cases, our buildings are achieving 50% or even 60% water and energy savings, therefore exceeding the 40% target.”

Masdar City’s buildings are able to meet these targets thanks to their use of both passive and active technologies. Passive design features, such as ensuring that buildings face away from the sun and are built closer together to encourage shading, help to keep the city cool and minimise the need for energy-intensive air conditioning. In its place, natural air conditioning is generated by a wind tower that passively captures wind and directs it to the central courtyard – with no energy input required. As a result, the average temperature in Masdar City is lower than elsewhere in Downtown Abu Dhabi.

Nevertheless, the city’s abundant sunlight is still put to good use. It is converted into 17,500 megawatt-hours of clean electricity annually by the city’s 10-megawatt solar photovoltaic power plant, which mitigates 15,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per year.

Among other things, this electricity is used to power one of the city’s greatest technology investments: its driverless public transport system. This is complemented by a city layout built to be walkable and pedestrian-friendly.

There are a number of less obvious active technologies at work as well, all serving to reduce the city’s energy consumption.

“Masdar City is ‘smart’ in every way, from using LED lights to monitoring people’s electricity and water usage, so that their supply can be adapted to their consumption patterns,” says Ahmad.

“Energy is also recycled – for example, the energy released when braking the lifts in the IRENA building is converted to electricity.”

The IRENA building is the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), and uses 64% less energy than typical buildings in Abu Dhabi. Other key buildings in Masdar City include the Siemens Middle East HQ, where 600 staff are based; the Incubator Building, which integrates retail and office space to host a range of businesses; and the campus and laboratories of the university, Masdar Institute.

“The Incubator is our free zone, where we lease office and retail space to companies and help them get started up,” Ahmad explains.

“It has grown rapidly, and there are now more than 300 companies based there. Next we’re adding a hotel and 500 residential units, which will further transform Masdar City into a truly mixed-use city with accommodation and hospitality – it’ll truly be a live, work, learn and play proposition.”

A few thousand people live and work in Masdar City at present, but when complete it is expected that 40,000 people will live there and up to 50,000 people will work and study there every day.

Research and development

The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MI) sits at the centre of the city and is an important part of the Masdar business. Developed in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the university offers MSc degrees and PhDs while hosting most of Masdar’s renewable energy research and development (R&D). Research by faculty and students at MI has resulted in the registration of six US patents, 54 US patent applications and 96 invention disclosures. The innovation nurtured within MI that led to these patents counts as a measure of regional knowledge production. These innovations emerging from MI are often commercialised and made a reality by Masdar’s Special Projects and Application Development teams.

Current prominent areas of Masdar’s R&D include solar energy storage and seawater desalination using solar energy. These are two technologies that have both local and global applications. Another technology Masdar is advancing is carbon capture and storage.

“The UAE has traditionally been a hydrocarbon-based economy, which is why we are funding solutions for making those systems cleaner,” Ahmad explains.

“We have a project with ADNOC [Abu Dhabi National Oil Company] where we capture carbon dioxide emissions from the Emirates Steel Plant and send it through 50 kilometres of pipeline to be injected into an onshore oil field to enhance oil recovery. So we accomplish two things: we avoid the emission of 800,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to removing 170,000 cars from the road, and use it to enhance oil recovery in place of natural gas, which is valuable and better to use for other things. It’s a win-win situation.”

Masdar Special Projects also contributes R&D, consulting, funding and execution to renewable energy projects internationally. One example is the renewable energy project it developed for Samoa, a place that has an excellent wind resource but also experiences storms that could break standard wind turbines. Masdar thus developed “cyclone proof” wind turbines for the island, which pivot to the ground and can be locked down within 45 minutes when there’s a storm to avoid turbine damage.

Masdar has formed partnerships with many global companies through projects such as this, including four international water companies and three international solar companies.

“We’ve managed to develop a reputation in the global market as the people to go to if you have a really good renewable energy idea and want to commercialise it,” Ahmad remarks.

Investment and supply

In addition to Masdar’s Special Projects investment, the company has a pure investment arm called Masdar Capital. To date, it has fully invested two funds worth a total US$540 million into a range of companies and initiatives focused on renewable energy, waste management and other areas of sustainability.

“One example is a European company called Europlasma, which has developed a plasma gun for efficiently converting waste to energy,” says Ahmad.

“Another is a US-based company called RePlanet, which takes bottles and cans out of the waste stream and recycles them into high-value products.”

Finally there’s Masdar’s project development arm, Masdar Clean Energy, which has committed more than US$1.7 billion to renewable energy projects worldwide. Within the UAE alone it has delivered almost 1 gigawatt of renewable energy capacity, inclusive of the largest project in the region: the 100-megawatt Shams 1 solar power project in western Abu Dhabi, which it developed in collaboration with Abengoa Solar and Total.

Outside the UAE, Masdar Clean Energy helped develop the largest offshore wind farm in the world: the 650-megawatt London Array in the Thames Estuary, UK. It was also part of the Torresol Energy project, a joint venture with SENER in Spain that operates 120 megawatts of concentrated solar power (CSP) plants.

In the last couple of years, Masdar Clean Energy has invested substantially in the UK’s offshore wind sector again, securing a 35% stake in the 430-megawatt Dudgeon wind farm being built offshore Norfolk by Statoil and Stakraft.

“Construction is now underway and we expect Dudgeon to be up and running by 2017, from which point it will be able to power approximately 410,000 homes and displace up to 893,000 tonnes of CO₂ emissions annually,” says Ahmad.

“We like the UK market because it supports renewables, particularly offshore wind, and in this new project we are applying the skills and knowledge we acquired in building the London Array.”

While Masdar is very comfortable investing in mature markets such as the UK, Ahmad says the company’s greatest focus going forward will be on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Due to the region’s rapidly growing energy demand, developing renewable energy capacity here has scope to bring the greatest rewards to the countries involved and Masdar alike.

“The MENA region as a whole is expected to double its energy demand by 2030, so there’s a lot of demand that must be met with different types of energy,” Ahmad explains.

“We’ve just inaugurated Jordan’s first utility-scale wind power plant which is also the largest in the Middle East; Morocco is aiming to get 52% of its energy from renewables by 2030; and Egypt is also very energy hungry. Through providing ground-breaking R&D, commercial developments and strategic investment, we want to be the leading force in the development of MENA’s renewable energy sector.”


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