Seeing Past Oil

Spurring Sustainable Business in Masdar City

Abu Dhabi is the second largest of the Gulf’s United Arab Emirates. But that is not saying a lot – it’s just 970 square kilometres in area and its postage-stamp size houses just 620,000 people. Its wealth, as we all know, derives from oil; older readers may remember the shock felt around the western world in the early 1970s when the price of the Black Stuff rocketed and the UAE was formed partly to protect the fantastic incomes being generated.

The CIA World Factbook comments: “Its high oil revenues and its moderate foreign policy stance have allowed the UAE to play a vital role in the affairs of the region. For more than three decades, oil and global finance drove the UAE’s economy. However, in 2008-09, the confluence of falling oil prices, collapsing real estate prices, and the international banking crisis hit the UAE especially hard.”

To many observers, the excesses of Dubai (such as its spectacular but extravagant new buildings, its artificial ski-slopes and ‘biggest-in-the-world’ claims for its attractions) exemplify the UAE’s fate. But just down the coast in Abu Dhabi, a different and essentially forward-thinking administration is looking past oil toward sustainability for the future, something not always associated with the region.

According to a document entitled The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, “despite its mature character, there remain excellent opportunities for growth in Abu Dhabi’s oil and gas sector, including in the areas of exploration, production, refining and transport.” However, the state has identified a number of core businesses it wants to develop urgently to provide alternative streams of income – including telecoms, healthcare equipment, and tourism. Abu Dhabi has chosen these focus sectors “for their potential to provide long-term, sustainable growth and diversification.” As a result, Abu Dhabi “will commit its financial and human resources to developing these sectors over the next two decades and beyond.”

The document is not issued directly by government but by Masdar, a local commercially driven renewable energy company based in Abu Dhabi and a subsidiary of the Mubadala Development Company. A strategic government initiative, the company has a mission to invest, incubate and establish the new energy industry in Abu Dhabi and around the world. Masdar is playing an important role in extending Abu Dhabi’s energy leadership beyond hydrocarbons. By adopting an integrated, holistic business model – merging higher education, R&D, investment and sustainable living – Masdar says it “can meet the changing needs of the evolving industry”.

And the first evidence of this boast is Masdar City, “one of the most sustainable urban developments in the world. Designed as a cleantech cluster with special economic zone incentives, the city attracts companies to commercialise and deploy new energy technologies in the Middle East.” The accent is very much on green – again, not something the region is noted for. The intention is to provide a quality of life “to rival that of any world-class city while also being uncompromisingly sustainable.” Of course this is a laudable aim in a greenfield project; can any lessons be learned to bring back to Australia?

Well, one of the key elements of the city’s planning is its orientation: seeking the maximum efficiency gains at the lowest cost by optimally orienting the city grid and buildings to minimise solar heat gain on building walls and the street, while maximising cooling night-time breezes. Work, entertainment, recreation and home are all designed to be close to each other, for convenience and to minimise use of transport. Indeed, the citizens of Masdar City will be encouraged to wear out their shoes: narrow, shaded streets and pleasant shaded walkways and other paths are intended to encourage walking. “The integrated nature of the city means it’s not far to walk to many destinations, while convenient transportation also supports this pedestrian focus.”

To do this sort of development seriously, deep pockets are required and Mubadala is not short of money. However, the company points out that, “only if sustainability is economically feasible will enough communities be able to implement the technologies and systems, and do so on a big enough scale to achieve meaningful progress in this realm. That’s why Masdar City is not only committed to building one of the most sustainable cities in the world, and one that is an attractive place to live, but also to achieving this in a commercially viable manner.

“From our experience planning, designing, developing and operating a sustainable city, achieved by deploying the latest commercially viable technologies, and integrating them in systems that deliver further cost and resource savings – we know how to deliver sustainability in a way that makes sense financially.”

Creating any sustainable urban development or re-development requires a unique focus across all areas of design, development and operation. Five of the most important are: planning and design, power, water, transport and supply chain. Like Australia, Abu Dhabi has open space (though on a smaller scale). While the city project is currently powered entirely by its own renewable resources, the plan calls for off-site generation of power in the medium term: remaining power will be sourced from offsite renewable sources. There are several renewable energy projects under construction or in development in the UAE that will provide potential clean-energy sources for the city.

In addition to photovoltaic electricity generation, the sun’s energy is being tapped via evacuated tube solar collectors to provide domestic hot water. Concentrated solar and geothermal heat to run single- and double-effect absorption chillers are currently being tested as possible air-conditioning solutions for the city. A 10MW solar photovoltaic plant is already operational within Masdar City, the largest such solar plant in the Middle East. It powers the first Masdar Institute buildings, the temporary Masdar administration buildings and many ongoing construction activities on site.

Planners have prioritised low-cost means of reducing consumption. “Active controls, such as renewable energy, are the most expensive, while offering the lowest relative environment-impact returns. That’s why designers first concentrated on orientation and performance optimisation, thereby reducing a large amount of energy demand with little cost, and only subsequently looked at what active controls could be implemented,” according to Mubadala.

The city’s planners are aiming to more than halve water consumption compared to conventional developments. In fact the phase 1 target is just 180 litres per person per day. A longer term target will cut a further 40 per cent from that figure, although this does not include water used for district cooling. As for waste, phase 1 is expected to generate some 22,000 tonnes per year and the target is to divert half of it from conventional landfill.

This is a work in progress on a scale modest in comparison to the likely needs of any new city to be built in Victoria or New South Wales. Three projects to be delivered by the end of 2013 will increase the size of the city six-fold, from 35,000 square metres of construction floor area in 2010 to nearly 200,000 square metres. Phase 1, which is scheduled for completion in 2015, is expected to have 1 million square metres of gross floor area to include space for commercial, residential, retail, community and the Masdar Institute, and will be home to a perhaps underwhelming 7,000 residents and 15,000 commuters.

Still, given that some 70 per cent of the world’s population is expected to be urbanised by 2030, and that 70 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions emanate from cities, this sort of urban experiment has a role to play; Australian city planners should monitor the progress of Masdar and learn some basic lessons. One of them is that commitment to cause and investment are needed if our cities’ futures are to be assured.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 5:33 PM AEDT