Image: Masdar Institute and dorms
Masdar City via AP
The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology recently opened as the first piece of Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. Some 100 of the institute's 170 students live in dorms at left.
updated 10/10/2010 10:12:57 AM ET 2010-10-10T14:12:57

A $22 billion clean-energy city being built in the desert outside Abu Dhabi will no longer aim to produce all its own power, the developer revealed Sunday following a wide-ranging review that retools some of the project's ambitions.

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Plans originally called for Masdar City to become a self-contained "carbon-neutral" community of 40,000 residents and even more commuters. Cars would be banned. Waste and water would be recycled.

It is meant to be a marked environmental contrast to other cities in the Emirates, where fuel-guzzling SUVs and year-round air conditioning powered by fossil fuel are common.

The state company behind the city said Sunday the project now won't be completed until at least 2020 — four years after the original deadline — and that work could stretch until 2025.

The Abu Dhabi Future Energy Co. — which goes by Masdar or "source" in Arabic — also backed away from original plans to power the city solely on power produced on site. The latest plans still call for the project to rely solely on renewable energy, however.

Chief Executive Sultan al-Jaber insisted that the project is in no way being scaled down or scaled back. Rather, he said, Masdar is adapting its plans to account for new research and technologies as they become available.

"By us actually doing it and investing money, we had access to lessons learned that no one had access to," he told The Associated Press. "We have to learn, adjust, adapt and move forward. We can't be rigid," he said.

Masdar said it is exploring a range of clean-energy sources for the city, including geothermal energy and solar thermal cooling, but that it will also consider buying renewable power from other locations.

Vast solar arrays were originally slated to provide the bulk of Masdar City's power.

The changes mark the biggest shift in Masdar's strategy since the project was announced in 2006. Work on the site started in 2008.

Not just 'podcars' anymore
As part of its new plans, Masdar said it is going to limit the development of a highly publicized network of personal podcars that would shuttle tens of thousands of Masdar City residents and visitors around the 2.3 square mile development.

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The "personal rapid transit" podcars, which would travel on fixed tracks, were meant to replace personal vehicles in a city that promised to be entirely car-free.

Masdar now says the podcar system will be limited to an "ongoing pilot project," and that other types of electric vehicles may be allowed in the future.

Gulf energy expert Robert Bryniak, chief executive of Golden Sands Management Consulting in Abu Dhabi, said it made sense for Masdar to re-examine its plans. He described the original targets as "extremely aggressive" given the timeframe involved.

"Trying to get to a zero-carbon footprint is extremely difficult. To try to supply all the energy internally was going to be a pretty tough challenge," he said.

Some parts of Masdar City are already up and running.

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Students and faculty began moving into six buildings housing a research facility known as Masdar Institute last month. While Masdar does not claim those buildings are carbon neutral, it says they use about half the water and electricity than other buildings in the Emirates thanks to rooftop solar panels and hot water heaters.

Al-Jaber told reporters in June that the overall aims of the project were not in jeopardy amid reports that the company had shed jobs and was looking to cut costs.

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE, a Gulf federation that has the world's largest ecological footprint per capita, according to the World Wildlife Fund. That means each of its residents uses more of the world's resources on average than those living in any other nation.

Masdar City is at the heart of efforts by Abu Dhabi, one of the world's biggest exporters of oil, to position itself as a world leader in renewable energy. The emirate is investing heavily in solar and nuclear power, and was picked last year as the home of the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: $22 billion city in the works

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  1. The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology debuted in September 2010 as the first finished component of a much larger Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The $22 billion project is built around the idea of renewable energy -- an odd concept given that the UAE is a major oil exporter.

    On Oct. 10, project developers announced two significant changes, backing off plans to get all renewable energy from within the city and using only "podcars' for transit. (Masdar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. This illustration shows the concept for Masdar City, including a large complex of solar panels at left. Abu Dhabi's government investment arm is behind the vision of 40,000 people living in a clean-energy city. Developers on Oct. 10 pushed back completion by four years to around 2020, and stressed they would continue to make design changes as technology develops. (Foster + Partners) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. This illustration shows "wind cones" designed to circulate air within city buildings and along sidewalks. (Foster + Partners) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. These solar panels are among the hundreds being installed at Masdar City. The original plan was for the project to get all its energy needs from within its perimeter, but developers on Oct. 10 said they will purchase some renewable energy offsite. (Daryl Visscher) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. An underground system of "personal rapid transit" podcars was envisioned to travel on fixed tracks throughout the city. Initially, the podcars were meant to be the only vehicles in Masdar City, but developers on Oct. 10 said the podcar system will be limited to an "ongoing pilot project" at the Masdar Institute and that other types of electric vehicles may be allowed in the future. (Foster + Partners) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. This illustration shows a cooling tower that also acts as a pillar for a roof that provides shade and is covered in solar panels. (Foster + Partners) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. An architect's rendering shows how openings in some structures would provide sunlight where it is welcomed. (Foster + Partners) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. This illustration shows the use of undulating facades and traditional latticework in building architecture to block direct sunlight and provide privacy. (Foster + Partners) Back to slideshow navigation
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Explainer: Ten hot green-energy trends to watch

  • Image: Turkey litter
    Jim Mone  /  AP

    From the rollout of sexy new electric vehicles to technologies that convert turkey poop to electricity, green energy is the source of constant hype and buzz. What do green-energy experts have on their radar screen? To find out, we checked in with Dan Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley; and Ron Pernick, co-founder and managing director of Clean Edge, a research firm with offices in Oregon and California. Click ahead to learn about 10 trends they say are worth watching.

  • Solar prices are dropping

    Image: Solarpanels
    Matt Slocum  /  AP

    Prices for solar energy are dropping and will keep dropping, Kammen and Pernick say. For Kammen, the trend means that solar will finally start grabbing significant market share away from energy sources such as coal and oil — and catch up to the deployment of wind power, which itself is forecast to become as big as nuclear.

    Lump all three sources of energy together, and "we are now starting to talk about more than half of our energy coming from clean carbon sources," he says, noting the caveat that nuclear has its own concerns, such as waste storage that lead to questions about its overall cleanliness.

    According to Pernick, the price drops in solar — as much as 50 percent from 2008 highs — will lead to cost parity with other energy-generating technologies. "That is the big Holy Grail … and we are going to get there," he says.

  • A meet-up of energy and information technologies
    Virtual Test Drive is an app that simulates the performance of electric cars as they drive a route.

    In a "Jetsons"-like future, refrigerators will know when we're low on items such as cheese and beer and send a message to our GPS-equipped cell phones to remind us to pick up a wedge and a six-pack the next time we walk into our favorite grocery store — and thus prevent an extra 20-mile jaunt in our 2,000-pound car for a few items. Such a future is just around the corner, Kammen says.

    "Smart hardware won't solve our consumption addiction, but it will allow us to be much more efficient," he says. "And movement of goods around is a big deal."

    Kammen and his colleagues are currently matching up energy and information technologies with a smart phone application that lets people take a virtual test drive of an electric vehicle such as the Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt. The app sits on a GPS-equipped smart phone and rides along with drivers in their current car. Then, the users can go online, upload their data, and learn what their energy consumption would have been if they were driving an electric ride.

  • China starting to win the clean energy game

    Image: China clock
    Greg Baker  /  AP

    Global competition for dominance in the green energy industry is fierce. Industry insiders are watching the fight and keeping score, according to Pernick. "China is starting to beat out almost all other nations on a lot of different clean energy counts," he says. Sectors where China has a leading edge include solar photovoltaic manufacturing and deployment of wind turbines. The Chinese are also players in the electric car market, a sector traditionally dominated by the U.S. and Japan.

  • Call for clean-energy funds getting louder

    Image: Bill Gates

    Titans of U.S. industry, including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and Bank of America chairman Chad Holiday, issued a call this June for an annual $16 billion investment in clean-energy innovation.

    To get there, according to Pernick, will require government subsidies and regulations that promote clean energy instead of propping up the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries.

    "The naysayers will say, 'Well, you know, if you can't compete against oil and gas, then why bother?' And that's either an ignorant or disingenuous statement," he says. "There is not one energy source on this planet that is not both subsidy- and regulatory-dependent."

  • Energy development in the developing world

    Image: Third world

    "Few research labs innovate for other people; they innovate to meet their own needs," says Kammen, explaining the importance of energy development and innovation that is evolving in the developing world. Shown here are solar panels on a gas station in Algeria, for example.

    In Central America, plans are under way for a power grid that connects together everyone from Panama to Mexico. While the grid will be powered by all kinds of energy, solar and wind will be part of the mix. "We need more developing countries prioritizing their own needs, not just waiting for whatever happens to spill over [to them]," says Kammen.

  • Transportation starting to go electric

    Image: Nissan Leaf
    Mark Blinch  /  Reuters

    To those sick of the hype over electric vehicles such as the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, shown here, Pemnick says ... get over it. The buzz over electrified transportation is only going to get stronger, he says, with a build-out of high-speed rail networks and a resurgence of streetcars joining the mix.

    Kammen hopes to see a shift in behavior from personal cars to use of more mass transit, but isn't ready to call it a trend. "There are options there," he says, "but they are not real yet."

  • Growing investment in smart grid and grid infrastructure

    Image: Powergrid
    Charlie Riedel  /  AP file

    The electricity grid brings energy from wherever and however it is generated to the people who use it. Lots of technologies have emerged in recent years that promise to make use of this electricity more efficiently, such as sensors that shut off unnecessary appliances when demand spikes, and meters that let people know when rates are lowest for energy-intensive activities such as washing dirty clothes.

    Investment in these types of smart grid technologies is destined to grow, according to Pernick, whose firm recently launched an index to track the sector. In addition, the grid itself is bound to grow in coming years as utilities shuttle new sources of generation, such wind energy from rural, windy locales, to people in big cities on the coasts.

  • Carbon dioxide, a value-added product?

    Image: Coal on trial
    Charlie Riedel  /  AP

    Pernick sees signs of a nascent industry that uses carbon dioxide from industrial operations such as coal-fired power plants and breweries to create products such as calcium carbonate, a key component of Portland cement, and algae fuels.

    "This whole idea of industrial ecology that has been around for decades hasn't really reached an inflection point yet," he says, "but I think we're close — where all of the sudden waste streams become value-added products and services."

  • Megaprojects delayed but not all dead

    Image: Megaprojects

    The economic downturn and engineering obstacles have derailed green megaprojects such as Abu Dhabi's planned Masdar City, a carbon-neutral, zero-waste community in the oil-rich nation, shown here in an artist's rendering, and Texas oil-tycoon T. Boone Picken's much-hyped plan to build 1,000 MW of wind power in the Texas panhandle.

    But not all green megaprojects are dead in the water, according to Clean Edge. For example, the clean-tech research firm has its eyes on 2,000 megawatts worth of concentrating solar power plants under construction in China, a 1,000-megawatt wind farm in India, and the rollout of smart meters and distributed solar throughout Southern California.

  • Biofuels gain prominence, green cred still questioned

    Image: Biofuels
    Charles Dharapak  /  AP

    Electric utilities are burning more forest trimmings and agricultural waste to generate electricity and heat — a sign, according to Clean Edge, that woody biomass is growing up from a niche business to one that could become a significant player in the energy mix.

    However, as deployment of the technology scales up, so do questions about its green credibility — it gobbles up land and still emits carbon dioxide, for example.

    "We will certainly have more biofuel," says Kammen, "but whether we have biofuel that in fact is sustainable or not, I'm not sure. And if we have lots of biofuel but it is not deep green, not significantly cleaner than fossil fuel, why bother?"


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