One thing I promised to look into, after having won the trip to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2015 based on a vision of my city in 2030, was to get a sense of the vision for this place in the same time frame.
Abu Dhabi is clearly one of the most sustainability-focused, forward-thinking cities in the world. This stems from a massive commitment on the part of the iconoclastic ruler Sheikh Zâyed bin Sulṭân Âl Nahyân, father of the current ruler.
The country’s wealth came from oil, which allowed it to sprout from a minor fishing village into a bustling modern city in just the past 50 years. Given Abu Dhabi’s harsh environment, it is not an easy place to implement a brand new vision. Yet, the combined mounting pressure of rapid growth and dwindling water supplies give a unique shape to the challenge the emirate faces. It was a credit to the Sheikh that he recognized that a major step in the direction of sustainability — something few others were doing at the time, especially in this part of the world — was just the right medicine for his people.
Perhaps the most critical issue here is water. Situated in a desert, atop a non-renewable aquifer alongside the Persian Gulf, Abu Dhabi doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to safely expand its supply. The Gulf, isolated from the Indian Ocean by the Straights of Hormuz, already has salinity levels considerably higher than most places. That means that the use of desalination plants, which return salt back to the Gulf after purifying water for human consumption, is limited.I think my hometown of Rochester, New York, would be happy to trade some of our water for some of Abu Dhabi’s sunshine if that were possible. But given that the emirate, with a population of 2.3 million, could potentially double in size in the next 15-20 years, the water shortage presents a big challenge.
One vision for 2030 here, says Kirk Duthler, a consultant who works with Environmental Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD), is to reduce per capita water consumption by 80 percent. This will require some sense of sacrifice, to be sure, but Abu Dhabi currently uses water at a rate three times that of the U.S. Irrigated forests, outdoor plants and lawns, as well as washing cars, are all luxuries that will have to be cut back on in this very dry part of the world. Water-saving technologies will also play a role, as will the increased use of recycled water, which is already being used to help nourish roadside plants.
But probably the most effective action is the one the government just took, which was to put, for the first time, a tariff on water.
Believe it or not, this city — which has aspirations to become a paragon of sustainability, rated among the best in the world — has provided both water and electricity, free of charge, to UAE citizens up until now.
The new water tariff, which took effect Jan. 1, is likely to make a big difference. Not leaving any stones unturned, however, the emirate is also investing heavily in rainfall enhancement science (cloud-seeding), which will be a long-term effort with potentially huge rewards. Abu Dhabi’s government has brought a number of heavyweight international scientists onboard, including Dr. Roelof Bruintjes of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Colorado.
On the energy side of things, this area is far more fortunate, with both oil and gas as well as abundant sunshine. The Shams-1 power plant provides 100 megawatts of solar power, supplemented with natural gas. (I visited the plant and wrote about it here.)
Still, Abu Dhabi feels it can’t develop this resource fast enough to keep up with growing demand, while meeting its carbon reduction goals, which is why the emirate is constructing a series of four 1.4-gigawatt nuclear plants in the desert. The plants will be built by the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. and will come online beginning in 2017. They’ll be equipped with a single-pass condenser, which is a water-saving design.
Oddly, I didn’t see a lot of solar photovoltaics, at least not yet. The fact that people receive electricity for free likely has a lot to do with that. Abu Dhabi may be inadvertently providing proof of the importance of economic incentives as a critical element in the transformation of our modern economy.
The one exception is Masdar City, a city within a city that is a showcase of sustainability that has a lot to show the world. Indeed, if half of the cities in the world (including my own) get to where Masdar City is today in 2015, I’d say we were doing pretty well. The ubiquitous solar panels are the least of it. The entire city, which will encompass about 1.5 square kilometers when complete, has been laid out with strict adherence to passive solar principles. I’m not just talking about the buildings. This was done from an urban planning perspective.
For instance, the street grid was aligned with the prevailing wind to maximize cooling, which is most welcome when summer temperatures can average 96 degrees Fahrenheit with highs of 108. Streets are kept narrow to shade the road surface. Buildings are made with lightweight ETFE materials that won’t store heat and re-radiate after dark. This is part of the effort to keep the town walkable: Everything is close together. No cars are allowed inside, but driverless, electrified personal rapid transport (PRT) vehicles (pictured above) carry passengers from the parking lot and will soon connect with light rail, metro and bus.
A large, modern wind tower provides a welcome breeze on the hottest days, enhanced by mist injectors — not unlike the solar wind tower project I wrote about last month. Masdar City currently houses Masdar Institute, which offers rigorous advanced-degree programs in various aspects of sustainability. Facilities are impressive. Also located on-site is a local headquarters for Siemens Corp., andthe word headquarters for International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) was just completed this week. Future plans include multi-family residential buildings with additional emphasis on the social aspects of the community, which currently serves mostly commuters. Despite this, many residents of the surrounding area already enjoy coming here on the weekends to enjoy the unique and pleasant atmosphere, patronizing the various restaurants and shops that line the central square.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one other aspect of Abu Dhabi’s impressive sustainability commitment: By the time 2030 rolls around, Masdar Institute’s graduates will be among society’s most influential thinkers, armed with an in-depth understanding of sustainability.
Perhaps even more important: Today’s young school children, who will just be coming of age by 2030, are already being served by waste management and recycling company Bee’ah’s Education for a Greener Generation program. The comprehensive, voluntary, bilingual program provides tools “to empower teachers with environmental teaching tools, and to educate and change students’ attitudes and behaviors.”
All things considered, I came to Abu Dhabi on the wings of my vision for 2030 and came away impressed with theirs. Of course, many of the elements are also being applied elsewhere in other cutting-edge cities, but the depth of commitment here — and the broad engagement on multiple fronts — is among the best. For more information, check out Abu Dhabi’s Urban Planning Commission 2030 Vision document.
Image credit: RP Siegel
RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. He has written for numerous publications ranging from Huffington Post to Mechanical Engineering. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the successful eco-thriller Vapor Trails. RP, who is a regular contributor to Triple Pundit and Justmeans, sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand. RP recently won the Masdar Blogging Competition and willing be attending Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week
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Disclosure: Masdar covered RP Siegel’s travel costs to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.