Abu Dhabi's Green Ambitions: An
Emirate Focused on Energy
Jan 23, 2009 - Marc Gunther - GreenBiz.com
"You've got one of the oil capitals of the world
taking a strong interest in renewable energy," Tony
Blair said. "It's quite impressive to see."
Yes, it's impressive. Blair, the former British
prime minister, held a brief news conference before
delivering the closing speech at the World Future
Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi. Like most of the speakers
at the event, which brought 15,000 people to this
oil-rich emirate on the Persian Gulf, he called
for global regulation of greenhouse gases, investments
in solar and wind power and international cooperation
to share technology with poor nations.
"It is right now," Blair said, "at the instant
when our thoughts are centered on the economic challenge,
that we must not set to one side the challenge of
global warming, but instead resolve to meet it and
put the world on path to a sustainable future."
Abu Dhabi's heading down the path, in a hurry.
By now, if you've paid any attention (or if you
read this front-page story in The Times last week),
you've heard about the zero-carbon, zero-waste,
powered-by-solar Masdar City, which is being built
outside of downtown Abu Dhabi.
But did you know that the city will also include
the world's biggest and most sophisticated PRT (personalized
rapid transit) system, computer-driven vehicles
that will take people exactly where they want to
go, nonstop? Here's what the PRT vehicles will look
like (Phil Clark provided his photo below to GreenBiz):
The PRT prototype
And did you know that the Masdar Initiative, the
parent company for Abu Dhabi's alternative energy
ventures, is going to build what could be the world's
largest carbon-capture and storage operation?
And did you know that Masdar is building a solar
panel manufacturing plant in Germany, which will
then be duplicated in Abu Dhabi, and quite likely
after that in the U.S.?
And did you know that Abu Dhabi also has plans
to build as many as 10 nuclear power plants?
Now that's Beyond Petroleum.
The cost of all this is a cool $22 billion, although
the Masdar Initiative, as a for-profit entity, hopes
to make money back by renting out offices and homes
in the city, selling energy to the rest of the Middle
East and investing in clean energy businesses. Masdar,
for instance, is an investor in Solyndra, a fast-growing
solar PV company based in Fremont, Ca., with more
than $1.5 billion in orders.
What Abu Dhabi is doing is uncommon in business.
Rarely does a company (or, in this case, a country)
that is thriving in one industry set out to become
a leader in a competing business. Usually companies,
or entire industries, are too busy protecting themselves
against competition. Think about how the newspaper
industry and the music industry missed opportunities
on the Internet. If they had been willing to disrupt
themselves, some classified ad guy would have started
eBay and craigslist, and some music promoter would
have invented iTunes.
Certainly Abu Dhabi doesn't need to expand its
operations. The average net worth for Abu Dhabi's
420,000 citizens is US$ 17 million, which is why
most of the work in the city is done by expatriates
from south Asia, Africa and the rest of the Middle
East. Nevertheless, the ruling family has decided
to use its wealth to diversify and anticipate the
changes to come.
As Masdar CEO Sultan Al-Jaber put it: "The world
has reached a tipping point in the acceptance of
I can't really tell you why the country has set
out in this new direction. When I asked Masdar people,
I was essentially told that this was due to the
sagacity of the royal family, and specifically to
the wisdom of the overseer of Masdar, Sheikh Mohammed
bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi
and Deputy Supreme Commander of the armed forces.
The Sheikh doesn't do interviews, so I couldn't
ask him directly about his thinking. (Disclosure:
The Crown Prince paid for my trip to Abu Dhabi.)
I can tell you that the Sheikh has several things
going for him that American CEOs don't. He doesn't
have to worry about quarterly earnings, so he can
invest for the long term. He doesn't have to answer
to shareholders. He doesn't have to get elected.
And no one will tell him publicly that he's crazy
to be spending money on solar power and green buildings
because he can't be criticized in the press.
I also can't tell you whether the Masdar Initiative
will succeed in its many ventures. But I can say
that I don't know of any company, or any country,
that is doing more to lead the world to a low-carbon