Masdar City: An Example for Cleantech Innovation

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The low-rise, mixed-use high development city that is Masdar and the pride of Abu Dhabi, is a wonderful example of existing and growing cleantech innovation. This article takes you through 1) introduction to Masdar, 2) features, 3) commercial occupants, 4) support and criticism, and 5) first private homes on the way.


What is it?

Masdar City is one of the few successful examples of arcology – structures incorporating architectural design principles for thickly populated habitats (hyperstructures) with the aim of minimizing environmental impact. The project depends on solar as well as other sources of renewable energy. The construction of the city was begun with the objective of creating it the world’s first completely sustainable, zero-emission city. The ambitious city was first announced in 2006 as a $18-22 billion project.

How did it happen?

The U.A.E President and ruler of Abu Dhabi, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was aware that oil – the key source of Abu Dhabi’s wealth, would one day run out. So, he asked his advisers to develop a long-term plan that would enable the country to expand their economy away from hydrocarbons. The solution they arrived at was renewable energy. Abu Dhabi could be a part of the global energy campaign and make money from it too.

The idea was to build a fully functional city, the making of which would trigger better local comprehension of and more investment in green technology and industry. Expertise in those industries would in the short term enable the Emirate to sell more of whatever remaining oil it had overseas, and in the long term, offer them considerable revenue. It was also expected that by providing office space to eco startups and housing a green-concentrating university, the city could function as an incubator for a fresh generation of Emirati greentech entrepreneurs. This in turn could help invigorate a local population used to big pay packets and subsidies and, it was hoped, additionally, boost Abu Dhabi’s international reputation.

Who is handling the project?

Masdar City

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Sultan Al Jaber, a young Emirati with an MBA, and an economics Ph.D. from Coventry University was entrusted with the massive task. As of December 2013, the 39-year-old was leading a team of 233, and doubling as a cabinet minister. In 2006, the team was just six-member strong. Masdar, an auxiliary of Mubadala Development Company is heading the project. The contract was awarded to design practice Foster with the team being led by Evenden (currently senior executive partner at the company).


Solar powered

Masdar is solar powered by way of a 54 acre (22-hectare) field of 87,777 solar panels. There are also solar panels on the city’s roofs. The initial plan was to power the whole city using on-site means such as rooftop solar panels. However, later, it was discovered that developing a solar field on the ground and in the center of the desert was more efficient. It was easier to make a man brush these solar panels on the ground rather than to have to access individual buildings to clean the solar panels on their respective roofs.

With respect to solar panels, blowing sand that sticks on the panels has come as an obstacle. So Masdar has been collaborating with other companies to build surfaces having smaller pores then those of sand particles to keep the sand particles from sticking. Work is also in progress towards coatings that repel bacteria and sand which could be used on solar panels and various other applications.

According to Foster + Partners, the land around the city would contain photovoltaic and wind farms, plantations and research fields, enabling the community to be fully energy self-sufficient.

Architecture and temperature

The city’s construction resembles that of ancient Arab cities, and the temperature is cooler than the surrounding desert.

This cleantech city has terracotta walls adorned with arabesque patterns. To people viewing the city from a distance, it appears to be a cube. Foster’s design team began their project by touring ancient cities such as Muscat and Cairo to see what it was that kept these cities cool. They discovered that the solution these cities had to handle hot desert temperatures was narrower; shorter streets typically extending no more than 70 meters. The streets’ end buildings generate adequate wind turbulence to propel air upwards leading to a flushing effect that keeps the street cool. Following this model, the streets in Masdar are also short and narrow, and buildings are clustered together to form walkways and streets protected from the sun. A wind tower 45 meters high and modeled on conventional Arab designs sucks air from above and channels a cooling breeze through the city’s streets.

The vertical faces of the buildings are clothed with screens that resemble a terracotta mesh. These screens keep the sun out while allowing entry to the breeze. The design of the walls (cushions of air restrict heat-radiation) has helped decrease demand for air-conditioning by an amazing 55 percent. A cooling effect is also contributed by the site being at a raised level compared to the surrounding land. Owing to the distinct architecture that keeps the city cool, the temperature here usually seems 15 to 20 degrees less than what’s felt in the surrounding desert.

Palmwood is used as an exterior wood (appears in features such as the entrance gates, doors, and screens) all through the city. Palmwood is a sustainable hardwood-substitute created by Pacific Green and utilizing plantation coconut palms that have ceased to bear fruit.


Wonderful development in biofuels

  • Saltwater fed desert plants could provide jet fuel for companies such as Etihad Airways and Boeing.
  • No water taps or light switches to cut water and electricity use, green water management.
  • Water and lighting are controlled by movement sensors that reduce water and electricity consumption by 55 and 51 percent electricity. In addition, about 80 percent of utilized water would be recycled.
  • Waste water would be recycled as many times as it can be recycled and would be used for crop irrigation and other applications.
  • PV (photovoltaic) panels are cleaned with water only twice a year. The remainder of the year, the cleaning is done manually with brooms.


Practically car-free, walking is encouraged

The nearest rapid transport connections and amenities are at a maximum distance of 200 meters, thereby encouraging the practice of walking. Almost all cars have been replaced by a set of driverless electric vehicles that take residents around under the site.

The first design banned automobiles, with the intention of accomplishing travel through PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) systems and public mass transit, with existing railways and roads linking to other locations outside the city. As per an amended design, public transport within the city would depend on means other than PRTs. Instead, there would be a combination of clean-energy vehicles and electric vehicles for mass transit within the city. Most of the private vehicles would be limited to parking lots along the city’s perimeter. The emirate’s existing metro line and light rail would link the cleantech city’s center with a greater metropolitan area.

Shams 1

Possibly the most noteworthy of what Masdar has to offer is situated even further afield. This is Shams 1, the Middle East’s biggest solar plant and the world’s biggest CSP (concentrated solar plant) at 100MW with 258,000 mirrors and a huge (220 tons) custom-made 125 MW steam turbine produced by MAN. It is a 100MW solar field situated on a 2.5 square kilometer plot of land, 150 km southwest of Masdar. The solar field is so huge that even for a person looking from atop a sand dune situated 75 meters away, the site goes beyond his field of vision. Though the $600 million costing plant is situated outside Masdar City, it is an essential aspect of the project’s story. This plant is just one of a number of green tech projects that Masdar executed. The funding for Shams 1 comes from Masdar’s investment arm.

Shams1 is ten times larger than Masdar City’s and functions differently. It has no panels, only curved five-meter-wide mirrored blades sparkling in the heat. Each of these blades reflects the sun’s 40-degree centigrade rays on to the center of a pipe of liquid. The considerable concentrated heat causes the liquid to be heated to a temperature of several hundred degrees celsius. The liquid is then pumped through an on-site station – the heat producing electricity that would save 175,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year. Finished at the beginning of 2013, the solar plant would take 20,000 Abu Dhabi homes off-grid.

Masdar City Welcome Video


Masdar Institute

The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), a graduate level research university concentrating on environmental sustainability, clean technology and alternative energy was the cleantech city’s first occupant. The Institute was responsible for the engineering plans of the energy efficient city and is the focal point of research and development activities.

MIST’s building, developed with the help of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology utilizes 70 percent less electricity and potable water than regular buildings of a similar size. It is also fitted with a metering system that continuously monitors power consumption. The campus has been designed in a manner that highlights the flexibility, modern materials, and the adoption of traditional architectural elements to enable an optimized blend of natural lighting and cooling to minimize energy requirements.

By 2013, the institute was 336 student strong, of which 42 percent were from the U.A.E, and 35 percent were women. The faculty and students of the Masdar institute are involved in more than 300 joint projects with academia, government agencies, and private enterprises. Their research tends to center on smart grids and smart buildings, renewable energy, environmental engineering, electronics, water use and energy policy and planning.


Masdar City is home to a regional headquarters for Siemens. Designed by the British architecture firm Sheppard Robson, the LEED platinum building is the most energy economizing in the whole of Abu Dhabi. It utilizes energy efficient and sustainable building techniques and materials.

The 130,000 square-foot building has been constructed around the concept of a “box within a box.” The structure incorporates an airtight and highly insulated inner façade that insulates from the sun and a lightweight shading system made of aluminum on the exterior. Under the building, the plaza is funnel-shaped. This shape is useful for sucking winds blowing at the time, beneath the building. Thanks to the Venturi effect, a breeze moves through atria in the building structure, up to the building’s roof, cooling public spaces without energy expenses. In addition, the atria enable daylight to enter the building center so as to decrease the need for artificial lighting, thereby bringing down energy consumption further. All the building’s automation systems are from Siemens.

The building has won several awards including the award for best office building (MIPIM Architectural Review Future Projects Awards 2012) and best office architecture (International Property Award Winners – Arabia 2012).


As of May 2013, construction has begun for the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Masdar City. The headquarters of IRENA, co-located with the Masdar headquarters, would generate renewable energy from the 1,000 square-meters rooftop photovoltaic solar panels to deliver renewable energy. The building would also incorporate systems to achieve water usage that is less than 50 percent that of a typical building in Abu Dhabi.

The combined headquarters campus would comprise three buildings on the territory of the 32,000 square-meter complex. There would be a common community courtyard for the buildings that would connect the offices to restaurants, shops and open areas.

Incubator building

The Incubator building is perhaps the most futuristic of all structures in the city. A cuboid structure constructed around a central core that is fixed with drought-resistant plants, the building was made with recycled aluminum sheets and extrusions, and recycled structural steel in keeping with Masdar’s attempts to encourage a sustainable supply chain of materials. Dressed in colorful ceramic plates that assist the Incubator building with meeting Masdar’s strict energy requirements, it also functions as something of a huge mirror that reflects the surrounding campus.

The Incubator building incorporates office and retail space to accommodate regional offices for multinationals, start-ups, and small-and-medium-sized enterprises. It was designed to house approximately fifty companies and to attract brilliant companies and people who would like to research and engineer sustainable water and energy projects in a free economic zone.

Some of the prominent tenants in the building are Mitsubishi, General Electric (GE) and Schneider Electric. GE’s ecomagination center in Masdar City is the center’s first ever ecomagination center and also the first resident in the 10000 square meter, four storey Incubator building. The center offers exhibitions and training on water and energy efficiency.


The project is supported by many major entities including the U.S. government, the World Wide Fund for Nature (an international conservation charity), and Greenpeace. In response to the project’s dedication to zero waste, zero carbon and other environmentally friendly objectives, WWF and the sustainability group BioRegional have endorsed the city as an official One Planet Living Community. The Alliance to Save Energy honored the city with a 2012 EE Visionary Award in appreciation of the city’s contributions to the furthering of energy efficiency.

Just as Masdar City has its advantages, it has its shortcomings too:

  • The city has no affordable housing, so a considerable number of the city’s workforce have to drive to their jobs. The city’s only residents are the university’s students.
  • Though Greenpeace supports the project, they emphasize that more importance should be attached to retrofitting already existing cities for greater sustainability rather than building new zero-carbon cities from scratch.
  • Life in the city is not urban. There are just a small number of cafes, a bank, a travel agency and an organic supermarket. However, the cafes are dead outside of mealtimes and the only customers for the travel agents are the lecturers.
  • Some skeptics are of the view that the city would only be representative of Abu Dhabi and that it would turn into a luxury option for the affluent.
  • Another disadvantage is the inaccessibility of the cleantech city from central Abu Dhabi.

Masdar: The City of the Future | Fully Charged


As per information from May 2014, Masdar is taking key steps to developing the cleantech city’s first private homes. The 500 new houses, to be designed by Woods Bagot promise to be super sustainable and completed within the next two years. As per a report from The National, the development has already been leased in full to educational establishments and corporations to be owned by Masdar. This plan is part of a bigger $15-18 billion development plan that would result in 2,000 homes to accommodate a maximum of 40,000 residents and 50,000 workers.

It is likely that Masdar Institute educators and students, and representatives and blue collar workers of businesses (large and small) that set up shop in any of the six office plots, would take up residence in the new neighborhood. However, there would also be 750 homes available on the open market.

The Masdar City project is expected to be completed in the period between 2020 and 2025.

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