A Green Revolution Blooms in the Desert
A Green Revolution Blooms in the Desert
ABU DHABI: With one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world, the oil-rich United Arab Emirates would seem an unlikely place for a green revolution.
Gasoline sells for 12 cents a liter, or 45 cents a gallon. There is little public transportation and no recycling. Residents drive between air-conditioned apartments and air-conditioned malls that are lit 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Still, leaders in the region know energy and money, having built their wealth on oil. They understand that oil is a finite resource, and vulnerable to competition from new energy forms.
So even as President-elect Barack Obama talks about promoting green jobs as the U.S. route out of recession, Gulf states like the Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are already making a concerted push to become the Silicon Valley of alternative energy.
They are aggressively pouring billions of dollars made in the oil fields into new green technologies. They are establishing billion-dollar clean-tech investment funds. And they are putting millions of dollars behind research projects at universities from Japan to Britain and setting up green research parks at home.
"Abu Dhabi is an oil-exporting country, and we want to become an energy exporting country, and to do that we need to excel at the newer forms of energy," said Khaled Awad, a director of Masdar, a futuristic, zero-carbon city and a research park, affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that is rising from the desert on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.
These are long-term investments in an alternative energy future that neither falling oil prices nor the global downturn seems likely to reverse. Even as the local real estate market is foundering, leaders of politics, business and research from across the globe will flock to this kingdom for three days starting Jan. 19 for the second World Future Energy Summit, which has already become something of a Davos for renewable energy.
This year's guest list includes Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia and former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, as well as top energy officials from the European Union, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Also attending will be executives representing hundreds of companies large and small, from British Petroleum and Credit Suisse to dozens of start-up companies from Europe and the United States.
"Truth is that, locally, that money is tight as everywhere and the property market is certainly taking a correction downwards," said Richard Hease, whose Dubai-based company, Turret Middle East, organized the conference. "But on the renewable energy front, it is business as usual."
The singular focus of all this new investment is to maintain the Gulf's dominant position as a global energy supplier, gaining patents from the new technologies and promoting green manufacturing.
Such investment, environmental experts say, will have global benefits, bringing many emerging technologies to a point where they are practical. But if the United States and the European Union have energy independence from the Gulf states as a goal of new renewable energy initiatives, they may find they are arriving late at the party.
"The leadership in these breakthrough technologies is a title the U.S. can lose easily," said Peter Barker-Homek, chief executive of Taqa, the national energy company of Abu Dhabi. "Here we have low taxes, a young population, accessibility to the world, abundant natural resources and willingness to invest in the seed capital."
The vision of a renewable future in the Gulf is not so much rooted in a fuzzy green sentiment - though that is starting to taking hold - but in analysis of the future. The countries' rulers understand that they need renewable energy not only to maintain the Gulf economies but also the high-end lifestyle of their peoples.
"You see what the Gulf states have achieved in terms of modern infrastructure and beautiful architecture, but this has come at a very high environmental price," Awad, of Masdar, said.
"We have the highest energy consumption in the world per person," he added. "So if you project that out with our current growth, we know we can't continue with this carbon footprint. We have to change. This is why Abu Dhabi must develop new models - for the planet, of course, but also so as not to jeopardize Abu Dhabi."
Indeed, the world is now consuming 80 million barrels of oil a day and that could rise to 150 million if population and consumption trends continue. That would mean adding six Saudi Arabias' worth of oil output just to maintain current usage, at a time when scientists are warning that carbon levels need to be cut significantly in order to avoid disastrous global warming.
"If there's limited oil, you want to use it for making things that you can't make with anything else, like this bottle," Awad said, picking up his water. "You don't want to use it for cooling cities."
To hedge their position, then, an increasingly sophisticated generation of largely Western-educated leaders in the Middle East are seizing on green business opportunities, by seeding research in far away nations.
In the wealthiest of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi's crown prince announced in January that he would invest $15 billion in renewable energy. That is the same amount Obama has proposed investing - in the entire United States - "to catalyze private sector efforts to build a clean energy future."
Masdar, the model city that will generate no carbon emissions, is tied to the crown prince's ambitions. Designed by Norman Foster, the British eco-architect, it will include a satellite campus of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, as well as a research park with laboratories affiliated with Imperial College London and the Tokyo Institute of Research and Technology.
In Saudi Arabia, the new state-owned King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or Kaust, gave a Stanford University scientist $25 million this year to start a research center on how to make solar power cost competitive with coal. Kaust, which doled out its first grants this year, also gave $8 million to a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who is developing ecologically friendly concrete.
And it has other agreements as well, with Caltech, Cambridge, Cornell, Imperial College, Sapienza, Oxford and Utrecht, to name just a few.
Last month, as Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain visited Qatar, the government signed an agreement to invest £150 million, or $230 million, in a British low-carbon technology fund, dwarfing the fund's investments from home.
For the rest of the world, the huge cash infusion may provide the important lift experts say is needed to get dozens of emerging technologies - like carbon capture, microsolar and low-carbon aluminum - over the development hump to make them cost effective.
"The impact has been enormous," said Michael McGehee, the associate professor at Stanford who received the $25 million Saudi grant. "It has greatly accelerated the development process."
Director of the largest solar cell research group in the world, McGehee had tried and failed to get the hefty financing needed from the U.S. government or industries to commercialize cheaper solar cells. Research money is tight, he noted.
The Saudi cash pays for 16 new researchers, and he expects the new energy cells to dominate the market by 2015. "People are astonished to see how big this grant is and where it came from," he said, noting that his past grants from the U.S. government were one-fiftieth as large.
Such huge grants to foreign universities have also generated controversy. At Berkeley, though some professors have accepted Saudi grants, the Department of Environmental Engineering has said it will not because of concerns about the kingdom's human rights record.
But experts say the vast investments from the Gulf states have already had a global ripple effect in restarting stalled environmental technologies.
Nancy Tuor, vice chairman of CH2M HILL, the Canadian construction firm that is building the Masdar City complex, said that the sheer size of the investment had has a "forcing effect," pushing polluting industries to experiment with cleaner solutions.
For example, initial plans for Masdar excluded both aluminum and conventional concrete, since those materials generate high levels of carbon emissions, which warm the planet. Aluminum manufacturers protested and came back with a product that reduced emissions by 90 percent compared to regular aluminum; it is now included in the project.
Likewise, all concrete in the project is made with alternatives to cement - the high emitting portion of the material. When the vast construction project ordered Caterpillar machinery, it insisted that models be made that run on diesel and to the highest European fuel efficiency standards.
The city will have no cars, and people will move around using driverless electric vehicles that move on a subterranean level. The air conditioning will be solar powered. Investors hope the technologies - and patents - that come out of the Gulf states will spread across the world, giving the country a manufacturing sector focused on renewable energy and materials.
"When people think about sustainability they think about devices," said Gerard Evenden, a partner at Foster and Partners, the British Architectural firm that is designing the site. "But here your taking it to a city scale, which has much more of an impact - connecting the devices to the structure to the transportation to the people."
With no industrial history, the Gulf states say they have the advantage of starting from scratch, unlike the United States, which, under most plans, would be retooling ailing industries, like car manufacturing.
Also, although the Gulf states have previously showed little interest in green energy like wind or solar, they have another advantage, Awad noted as he stood in the shimmering desert amid 41 types of solar panels, which engineers are now testing and using to power offices. "The sun shines 365 days a year," he said.