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Abu Dhabi's Masdar plan takes shape

David Hopwood

If anyone was in any doubt that the UAE’s Abu Dhabi is serious about its alternative energy credentials, think again. The richest Emirate's vision to look past its vast fossil fuel heritage and be seen as purveyors and thought leaders of a brave new world of sustainable living and renewable energy development is gaining momentum rapidly. David Hopwood visited Abu Dhabi and the World Future Energy Summit (WFES) to see for himself.

This year's World Future Energy Summit (WFES), hosted by Abu Dhabi's clean investment vehicle Masdar and organised by Reed Exhibitions and Elsevier (conference) – which took place for the third time in Abu Dhabi in January 2010 – came at an especially poignant time. It followed swiftly on from the UN's COP15 climate change summit in Copenhagen, which most agree had an especially disappointing outcome and left the majority of participants feeling severely downbeat.

In many respects a trip to Abu Dhabi for WFES was the perfect tonic for the circus that Copenhagen became (and not just because of the weather). COP15 framed a scenario where some vested interests did all they could to preserve the status quo (and won), whereas Abu Dhabi (one of the 7 United Arab Emirates) is clearly looking to the future with ambition when it comes to the development of its energy mix.

And while Copenhagen became mired in disagreement surrounding emissions reduction targets (which admittedly is what will give the investment community the clearest of clear signal it needs), WFES clearly put the focus back on the front foot: i.e. what can we do to bring alternative energy technologies to the fore.

This is where Masdar – or Abu Dhabi's future energy company – takes the stage. The plan is that Masdar will gain a foothold in the global alternative energy industry and transition Abu Dhabi from technology consumer to technology producer, while positioning itself as an alternative energy thought leader along the way (in this regard Abu Dhabi last year persuaded the new renewable energy agency IRENA to make Abu Dhabi it's home).

"Governments should develop policies and frameworks to encourage the private sector to develop new ideas and solutions."
Dr Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, CEO, Masdar

Masdar says it will also create the world's first carbon-neutral city along the way, and though many commentators have been cynical about whether this will ultimately happen (and still more view it as pure pr) the first stage is under construction, with a flagship building – the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MI). MI is a postgraduate research body with links to Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.

The newly-created institute has only 88 students so far, with another 154 starting in the next academic year. But the plan is to turn it into the best place in the world for research into advanced renewable energy and sustainability, with more than 600 students at the faculty by 2015.

Masdar's strategy will help Abu Dhabi reduce its carbon footprint but also serve as an example to fellow members of OPEC, the 12-nation oil cartel, that pursuing more environmentally friendly policies could be a useful future revenue stream too.

Perhaps more importantly, in terms of investment in alternative sources of energy, Abu Dhabi is not shirking what it says is its responsibility to offer alternatives to fossil fuel while setting an example to other Gulf states.

While such philanthropy is of course only part of the story, such clear and vociferous investment is why so many companies involved in renewable energy now see Abu Dhabi and WFES – and its increasing focus on alternative energy – as a must visit on the events calendar.

"In many respects a trip to Abu Dhabi for WFES was the perfect tonic for the circus that Copenhagen became."

And who would have thought we'd be saying that about an event taking place in a country that has the 7th highest oil reserves and sixth highest gas reserves in the world?

Masdar – key to a renewable energy future?

In fact, reducing its dependence on these fossil fuels is one of the important strands to Abu Dhabi's whole energy and sustainability strategy. As is now widely recognised, creating electrical energy by burning gas and using a high percentage of this electricity to operate air conditioning is not sustainable in the long term.

Abu Dhabi is a Gulf state which has acknowledged that despite its vast reserves of fossil fuels, ultimately they are finite. Combine this with a desire to bring a large carbon footprint under control, and a compelling case for developing renewable energy becomes evident.

Of course there's a commercial angle too – using gas to create electricity and then sell this electricity at a loss to the consumer is not commercially viable. Developing renewable energy generation through solar and wind to support the local market, while piping gas abroad for profit, makes sense.

In terms of generation costs, the fact that the country loses out by not exporting more of its gas reserves helps to justify the solar cost proposition more so than in many other parts of the world currently – because for Abu Dhabi it's about more than the cost of the solar, it's about money lost by burning gas internally at a loss, and not selling it to the lucrative markets abroad.

"Masdar will gain a foothold in the global alternative energy industry and transition Abu Dhabi from technology consumer to technology producer, while positioning itself as an alternative energy thought leader along the way."

Abu Dhabi has lots of land, so has space for large scale solar plants (both PV and CSP) – and this renewably  electricity will go some way towards helping the Emirate achieve its target of 7% of primary energy production to be derived from renewable sources by 2020.

With its strategy in place, Abu Dhabi could develop significantly as a renewable energy market in the near future, hence its ability to turn WFES into such an important event for the global renewable energy industry – despite being hosted in a gulf country.

WFES 2010 – all in this together

The World Future Energy Summit (WFES) hosted by Masdar (organised by Reed Exhibitions and Elsevier), strengthened its position as a platform for the development and commercialisation of renewable energy through four days of high level discussions and an exhibition of 600 companies.

Some of the world's foremost policy makers, academics, and business leaders in renewable energy attended – representing more than 130 countries. Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE hosted the summit for the third year, and the event was boosted by IRENA's decision to locate its global headquarters in the capital.

MASDAR renewable energy investments – at a glance

London Array (JV – DONG 50%, E.ON 30%, Masdar 20%)
  • 1 GW of power when complete;
  • 341 wind turbines;
  • It will produce enough energy to power a quarter of Greater London homes (750,000 homes);
  • It will represent nearly 7% of the UK Government's target of providing 15.4% of all electricity supply from renewable sources by 2015;
  • Six major supply and installation contracts were awarded in December 2009, paving the way for construction of the first phase of the project.
Torresol Energy (JV – SENER 60%, Masdar 40%)
  • Joint venture agreement between signed March 2008;
  • Torresol Energy is implementing the commercial deployment of a CSP Central Tower Receiver System;
  • Gemasolar plant consists of 2500 heliostats (mirrors) – diameter approximately 1500 metres;
  • Gemasolar will supply energy to 30,000 households;
  • The parabolic trough Valle 1 & 2 plants will generate clean and safe energy for over 80,000 homes.
  • €120 million Masdar investment;
  • Specialises in 1 MW and 3 MW wind turbines suitable for low and medium wind speeds;
  • In-house manufacturer of 1 MW moulds and blades;
  • Wind turbines use a Multibrid system with 30% less moving parts than geared systems;
  • A 13,400 m2 3 MW facility, with a maximum annual capacity approaching 600 MW, commenced production in November 2009;
  • A 65,000 m2 facility in Chennai, producing 1 MW nacelles, hubs moulds and blades with a maximum annual capacity of 1.4 GW, was inaugurated in September 2009;
  • WinWinD is expanding strategically throughout Europe, India and surrounding markets.

A clear message from the Summit was a need for cooperation among stakeholders – the policy makers, the business community and academia. And this collaboration should be of mutual benefit, said the Masdar CEO Dr Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber:

“Governments should develop policies and frameworks to encourage the private sector to develop new ideas and solutions. These policies must make renewable energy economically sound. In parallel the private sector must drive innovation and transfer of technology and be prepared to assume the technical, operational and financial risks”.

The diversity of the energy mix – from fossil fuels to nuclear, renewable energy and CCS – was also a key theme, alongside the need to make renewable energy cheaper than it is at present. As those embedded in the renewable energy industry are only too aware, Governmental policies are an important part of this, as well as mobilising adequate contributions for research and development from private and public entities.

Political engagement was strong, with more than 100 government delegations attending. And exhibitors also acknowledged the role the Summit is playing in helping facilitate business and development opportunities.

Sectors most represented included energy, solar, wind, environment, green building and water. China, France, Spain, the UK, the United States, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and the Netherlands all hosted national pavilions.

This was double that of the 2009 Summit. “The event continues to improve, and Abu Dhabi is really the place to do business. We have met many of the influential business leaders from the Capital of the UAE and the event, until now, has been very fruitful for us,” said a representative of Tenesol, part of Total and EDF Groups. Mauricio Rojas La Rotta, a representative of Solar Power Group added, “the event is becoming a reference point in the Middle East region.”

The consensus is that the future for renewable energy is bright. Ambassador Richard Jones, Deputy Executive Director of the International Energy Agency commented, “Renewables are of course a big part of the current mix, but they are going to be an even bigger part in the future.”

Talking to other WFES exhibitors, it was clear that while some did think the event was quiet at times (organiser Reed Exhibitions said that more than 23,000 people attended though, a 25% increase over 2009), and others spoke of an obsession with solar despite wind having some potential in the region, many companies still see the value of positioning themselves within a region that they perceive could be a thriving renewable energy hub in time.

Abu Dhabi seriously thinks it can achieve this level of prominence, and clearly many others now believe this too (alongside the companies present at the exhibition, more than 100 government delegations alone attended WFES, and the UK's secretary of state for energy and climate change was quoted as saying, “I think this is the centre of the clean energy revolution that is going on around the world”).

There may be some people in Germany that disagree with this, and Abu Dhabi may still be early on in its alternative energy adventure, but there's no doubting that its long-term vision – backed up with massive investment – translate into an ambition that is making the renewable energy industry at large sit up and take notice. And while the rest of the world has lurched from one financial crisis to the next, Masdar has been splashing the cash and methodically staking its claim in various strategic renewable energy opportunities, from solar to bioenergy (see discussions of projects below, and box – Masdar renewable energy investments – at a glance).

Masdar city

Masdar has grand plans for the city that it hopes will emerge from the desert over the next 10 years or so (so far, only the Masdar Institute headquarters and campus – the flagship project for phase 1 of the city is under development. Complete with labs, accommodation, shops and cafés, it is scheduled to open later this year).

Further down the line, the master plan is for a complete city for 40,000 residents and 1500 cleantech companies, entirely carbon neutral, powered by renewable energy and equipped with an electric transportation system. The development, designed by architects Foster and Partners, aims to create a low-energy environment. Streets are narrow and designed to be shaded by buildings which are themselves angled to funnel prevailing winds through the city. No windows are positioned flat on to direct sunlight, but the majority of all buildings will be covered with solar panels.

The surrounding area, which has General Electric and Boeing as committed anchor tenants, is scheduled for completion by 2013. The IRENA headquarters will also be based in the city.

Masdar's solar investments

Masdar PV

Masdar PV makes tandem junction amorphous silicon thin-film modules, using a modified Applied Materials' SunFab line (a laser edge delete system was installed to eliminate the leakage of electricity from the front to the back end of the TCO).

Masdar PV says it aims to reach 1 GW of annual production in the mid term. The estimated long-term investment of over US$2 billion is planned to fund Masdar PV's multiple-phased manufacturing and expansion strategy. US$200 million has already been invested in a production facility in Ichtershausen, near Erfurt in Germany, and an additional US$400m will be used to set up a production plant close to Abu Dhabi.

Torresol Energy

Torresol Energy was established in 2008 as a joint venture between Spanish engineering group SENER, (60%) and Masdar (40%), to develop and operate concentrated solar power (CSP) plants around the world.

The company's current portfolio includes three CSP plants – Gemasolar, Valle 1 and Valle 2 – all under construction in southern Spain.

Located in Seville, the Gemasolar plant will be based on central tower technology to produce 17 MW of electricity. The parabolic trough Valle 1 & 2 plants located in Cadiz will produce 50 MW of renewable electricity each (and will also have molten salt thermal storage capacity of up to 7.5 hours). Torresol Energy is looking at the option of additional projects across Southern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and the USA.

Valle 1 and 2, together with the Gemasolar plant (which was project financed in November 2008), represents a total investment by Torresol Energy of US$1.4bn across three CSP projects – over the last 12 months.

Away from tower technology, another of Masdar's flagship projects, the 100 MW SHAMS 1 CSP plant will use parabolic trough technology to generate renewable electricity; construction is scheduled to begin in 2010. Located at Madinat Zayed in Abu Dhabi, sources say it will provide more than 2200 full load hours per annum.

SHAMS 1 will also directly contribute toward Abu Dhabi's 7% renewable energy power generation capacity target by 2020.

London Array offshore wind project

Away from solar, Masdar has also invested in the UK's problematic London Array: a joint venture between DONG (50%), E.ON (30%) and Masdar (20%). The London Array will be the world's largest offshore wind farm (until the UK's Round 3 projects are completed) and will consist of up to 341 wind turbines. It will be rated at 1 GW of power, producing enough energy to power a quarter of Greater London homes (750,000 homes).

Located in the outer Thames Estuary in the UK, London Array will be installed over a 245 km2 site and will be built in two phases. The first phase will consist of 175 wind turbines, with a 630 MW output and will be completed in 2012. The second phase will bring the total capacity to 1 GW.

When fully operational, London Array will make a substantial contribution to the UK Government's target of providing 15.4% of all electricity supply from renewable sources by 2015; based on the current schedule the London Array project would represent nearly 7% of this target.

According to Ziad Tassabehji, Masdar's Director of Utilities and Asset Management, the decision was a highly strategic play to achieve visibility within the wind sector. “Up until 2008, Masdar was well known in the solar sector and not wind, so we wanted a flagship project that would make us a player in this sector. At the time there was some negative publicity about the withdrawal of Shell from the project, and I felt this could be an ideal opportunity for us to get into this sector”.

WinWinD – turbine manufacture

In September 2008, Masdar invested €120m in WinWinD, a Finland-based organisation specialising in the design, manufacture and supply of utility grade wind turbines for the global wind energy market.

With the help of Masdar, WinWinD is embarking upon an ambitious growth phase. It has invested in purpose built, large scale, state-of-the-art facilities in Hamina, Finland and Chennai, India, significantly expanding production capacity to 2 GW per year.

According to Masdar, WinWinD's turbines use an advanced planetary gear solution based on multibrid technology and a low speed synchronous generator, which combines the reliability of a modern direct drive and the compactness of a traditional high speed gear operating system. A permanent magnet synchronous generator increases efficiency at low wind speeds and a full conversion frequency converter/inverter provides grid friendly capabilities.

WinWinD's turbines are designed to have 30% fewer moving parts than competing products, increasing the reliability and reducing maintenance expense over the life of the turbine. The main WinWinD shareholders alongside Masdar are the Siva Industries and Holdings Limited and Finnish Industry Investment Ltd.


It's not just solar and wind that Masdar are focusing on.

Masdar's Institute of Science and Technology (the inaugural flagship building project of the Masdar City – currently under construction), Boeing and Etihad Airways announced at WFES an agreement to establish a research institute in Abu Dhabi dedicated to pioneering sustainable energy solutions.

The institute, the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Project (SBRP), will use integrated saltwater agricultural systems to support the development and commercialisation of biofuel sources for aviation and co-products.

As part of the initial agreement, the SBRP will undertake research projects in the arid and salt-rich environment of Abu Dhabi that will feature “innovative and promising” saltwater farming practices. The Masdar Institute will host the SBRP and provide laboratory and demonstration facilities both within and outside of Masdar City.

According to the Provost of the Masdar Institute, Dr. John Perkins, “This project demonstrates the Masdar Institute's strong desire to establish a world-class university dedicated to alternative energy, environmental technologies and sustainability.

"This project will for the first time demonstrate the commercial viability of using integrated saltwater agriculture to provide biofuels for aviation, and is consistent with the overall vision of Abu Dhabi to achieve a 7% target of renewables by 2020.”

The SBRP team will focus on an integrated seawater agriculture systems (ISAS) approach, which is a highly-efficient system for producing liquid and solid biofuels, capturing and holding carbon from the atmosphere, enlarging habitats to increase biodiversity, and simultaneously releasing fresh water for higher value uses such as drinking water. ISAS also has the potential to reduce the impacts of sea level rise on coastal communities.

The integrated approach uses saltwater to create an aquaculture-based farming system in parallel with the growth of mangrove forests and Salicornia, a plant that thrives in salty water. These biomass sources can be harvested sustainably and used to generate clean energy, aviation biofuels and other products.

The closed-loop system converts aquaculture effluent into an affordable, nutrient-rich fertiliser. Developing low-cost, non-petroleum fertilisers is a key to achieving reductions in carbon emissions from any biofuel source.

This technology has been pioneered by Dr. Carl Hodges of Global Seawater Inc., who has been engaged as special advisor to the project.

Sustainable biofuel development is a key element of aviation's carbon emissions reduction strategy. The SBRP will only seek solutions and lead research into biomass sources that do not distort the global food-chain, compete with fresh water uses or lead to unintended land use change, the project stakeholders maintain.

All phases of biomass cultivation for the project will be tested against the practices and principles developed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels and supported by members of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh said at an event in Abu Dhabi launching the project, “together with the Abu Dhabi Government, Etihad Airways and other industry leaders, we are forging our energy future by developing a renewable fuel supply now, not when fossil fuels are depleted. Developing and commercialising these low-carbon energy sources is the right thing for our industry, for our customers and for future generations.”

Etihad Airways' CEO, James Hogan added, “the development of carbon-neutral sources of energy is of major importance to Etihad Airways and the aviation industry.

"We are delighted to be a key member of the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Project which will be based in Abu Dhabi and will be one of the most innovative schemes of this nature in the world.

"The SBRP findings will be of great use to Etihad Airways as we look to reduce the use of conventional fossil fuels and to develop a commercially viable alternative which is also able to meet the sustainability principles that we have committed to as a member of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group.”

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Bioenergy  •  Photovoltaics (PV)  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Solar electricity  •  Wind power  •  World Future Energy Summit



sunrise1945 said

25 March 2010
It is good to know that an oil rich country is venturing into renewable energy in a big way. I congratulate Masdar for this effort. It is particularly interesting to know that they have started an institute to carry out research work in the fields of renewable energy as it is the need of the day because, the technology is not yet fully developed and none of the existing companies are in a position to offer 100% tested and tried out technology. This is the reason the capital costs are high. With the institute in place, cost effective technologies could be developed.
I have been working on some of the technologies particularly on CSP Thermal and energy from Oceans. I can help the institute in their efforts.

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