Masdar City: Eco-Friendly Utopia

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In today’s world economy in which oil is king, a recent development in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) merits our attention.

Although the UAE holds 8 percent of the world’s oil reserves, it recognizes that eventually that those reserves will dry up, so the UAE government has prioritized investments in green energy and water conservation technologies.

In 2007, the government announced its plans for an $18 billion, zero-carbon settlement named Masdar City, to be located fewer than 20 miles outside of Abu Dhabi. (The word Masdar means “source” in Arabic.) This may seem strange considering nearby Abu Dhabi’s record-setting skyscrapers, luxurious excesses, and prodigious use of the UAE’s vast oil resources. Nevertheless, the government is well on its way to establishing a community that is designed to be the first of its kind in the world.

Ninety percent of the power to be used in Masdar City will be solar generated. Spread over 22 hectares, the new city’s solar plant holds the title as the largest solar farm of its kind in the Middle East. In fact, the solar farm generates more solar energy than the city currently needs and directs its excess energy production to the Abu Dhabi power grid. Burning waste, a process that produces fewer carbon emissions than simply tossing trash into dumps, will generate the rest of the power needed to support Masdar City. Thanks to water-use reduction technologies, treated wastewater is 100 percent recycled and put to use for micro-irrigation and landscaping projects.

The city is also designed to minimize the energy necessary for transportation. In fact, this eco-city does not even allow combustion-engine vehicles — they are kept at the city’s edge in a few limited parking lots. In the near future, all transportation will be facilitated by clean energy systems such as electric trams, trolleys, and buses that will connect to areas inside and outside of the city.

Masdar City even has its own university, The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a graduate level, research-oriented university that focuses on alternative energy, sustainability, and the environment. It is the first major educational institution to occupy the city.

All this seems like something out of the Jetsons, but over the next 12 years the small community that has only recently begun to function will be transformed into over two square miles of high-efficiency apartments and office space.

While cutting energy costs, the businesses that operate in Masdar City will also benefit from being located in a designated special economic zone that offers total freedom from import tariffs, corporate and individual income taxes, and any restrictions on capital movement, profits, or quotas.

Oil once made life possible in the UAE. Within a relatively short time span, it rescued the country from the brink of poverty and lifted it to its current status as the world’s 6th highest GDP per capita — and yet, the Emirates are actively planning and building for a post-oil world. If the UAE wants to prove a point about the viability of an eco-friendly city to the world, it needs to get this Masdar City project right, especially as it pertains to solar energy use and production. If they do set a good example, it’s possible that other countries, such as America, may follow suit.

But despite the growing success of solar companies in the USA, some stock analysts are skeptical of the ability of solar companies to grow and reach profitability. Unfortunately, skepticism isn’t the only problem plaguing solar energy development in America.

Recently, there has been a large coordinated campaign by utility companies and conservative groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to roll back solar tax incentives in 2014. The Guardian obtained documents showing that the ALEC intends to advance legislation in the states that would take away those tax breaks currently extended to clean energy companies and to individuals who want to convert to solar energy. Without those tax breaks, the solar industry could very well falter.

The USA has yet to adopt solar energy infrastructure on a large scale, and continues to rely heavily upon imported and domestic oil. I believe that in the near future, there will be pressure on American industry to throw off its conservative approach to innovation and take more dramatic steps to meet the demand for green energy. But as of now, it seems some lawmakers and companies ask only, “Why change what’s working?” The question they should be asking is, “Why not innovate and prepare for the future?”

If we can efficiently and economically generate energy in the future while minimizing the impact on the environment, what is the downside?

About Eric Bates

Eric received his B.S. in political science with an emphasis in international relations from Santa Clara University in 2012. Upon graduating, he traveled and worked for a non-profit in Central America. He is a religious viewer of Conan O’Brien and also loves traveling. Eric is attending San Jose State University's graduate school program to receive a M.A. in Journalism and Mass Communications. He can be reached at ebates0@gmail.com.
Posted in: International, Technology