Green Technologies Get the Royal Treatment in Abu Dhabi

by Bill Chameides | January 21st, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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This week I’m witnessing Abu Dhabi’s nascent green transformation at the third energy summit hosted by Masdar. But where is the U.S.?

Green technologies are the focus in Abu Dhabi this week at the World Future Energy Summit.

Maybe you’ve heard that Dubai, one of the seven city-states that make up the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), is in financial ruin. Not so for its neighbor Abu Dhabi — not only the richest U.A.E. member but possibly the richest city in the world. Where does all that wealth come from? Guess.

The U.A.E. is the world’s third largest petroleum exporter, and well over 90 percent of U.A.E.’s oil exports come from Abu Dhabi. And so Abu Dhabi might be the last place you’d expect to find a hotbed of green innovation and investment. But you’d be wrong.

While Americans chant “drill, baby drill,” debate about e-mails and cap and trade, or argue that peak oil is only a desert mirage, Abu Dhabi is taking our hard-earned American petrodollars and positioning itself as a leader in what it foresees as a rapidly approaching post-fossil fuel energy era where renewables and green technologies will rule.

Today we keep the Middle East flush with petrodollars; tomorrow we could be fueling their economy with mega “renewa-bucks.”

Masdar on the March

Abu Dhabi’s bold, green move is being spearheaded by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, known as Masdar. The brainchild of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Masdar is on a mission:

“to position Abu Dhabi as a world-class research and development hub for new energy technologies, effectively balancing its strong position in an evolving world energy market …  [and] to drive the commercialization and adoption of these and other technologies in sustainable energy, carbon management and water conservation.”

Hardly shy about its aims, Masdar is developing a new city — the eponymous Masdar City — that it claims will be “the world’s first carbon neutral, zero waste city.”

Now there’s a vision. Is it for real? I certainly got that impression when I spoke with Masdar’s chief executive officer Sultan Ahmed Al Jabar, a Ph.D. engineer with lots of business acumen, whose huge physical presence is offset by a soft-spoken, gentle demeanor.

Third World Future Energy Summit

This week I’m witnessing Abu Dhabi’s nascent green transformation at the third energy summit hosted by Masdar. More than 20,000 attendees have descended on Abu Dhabi, which is awash with banners announcing the summit and welcoming us summit-goers.

I must say we are an eclectic group — we Westerners sporting suits and ties and Emirati wearing traditional dishdasha or kandura garb complete with guthra, or headscarf, for the men and abaya for the women. The one thing in common? Mobile phones — going off incessantly (often chiming inappropriate ring tones), clutched at ears or connected to headsets, creating a thrum of muted conversations and quiet digital e-mail and texting taps.

Zayed Prize Awards Innovation and Vision in Renewable Energy and Sustainability

The summit is a corporate lovefest — no greenie environmentalists here. Take for example, this year’s winner of the Zayed Future Energy Prize for innovation, vision and leadership in renewable energy. Its $1.5 million-prize is to support the winner’s continued research and innovation.

The award ceremony was held at what might be the world’s poshest hotel (the Emirates Palace) and hosted by CNN International’s Hala Gorani. The grand affair featured a royal entrance by the crown prince, a program of glitzy videos, and Academy Award-style music for each person called to the stage.

Last year, Dipal Chandra Barua, founder of a Bangladeshi company aimed at supplying renewable energy solutions to rural Bangladeshi, was awarded the prize and I’m sure its prize money provided an injection of funds that went a long way toward furthering his work.

This year’s winner was of a different pedigree: corporate giant Toyota Motor Company. That’s right. Toyota walked away with a $1.5-million check for its work on the Prius. I’m sure that money is going to make a big difference in its reported $22.7-million/day R&D budget.

Exhibits Showcase Latest, Greatest Green-Tech Offerings

The hit for me was the exhibits. There must’ve been 1,000 companies displaying their latest green wonders.

A striking feature is the small U.S. presence. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman often writes of America’s failure to engage aggressively in the green-tech revolution and the danger of us losing out economically (see here and here).

Walking through the exhibition hall really brought that home to me. The U.S. corporate presence here was overwhelmed by non-American competitors. And I’m not only talking about the usual suspects of Japan, China, Germany; Turkey, Korea, Italy, Egypt and of course U.A.E. also strutted their green stuff.

Here are a few exhibits that caught my eye:

  • NGK Insulators, LTD – a Japanese company working on energy storage systems using sodium sulfur batteries. Interesting idea because unlike lithium, the world has lots of sodium and lots of sulfur.
  • Enviromena Power Systems – an Abu Dhabi-based company that claims it’s the largest solar power plant constructed in the Middle East/North Africa region.
  • Yungli Solar – a Chinese company producing turnkey solar installations worldwide.
  • Statoil – a Norwegian company that’s leading the way in carbon storage and sequestration.
  • Two companies exhibiting here are using water-phase changes in different ways to produce clean water.
    • Arizona-based Air2Water, an American company (!), has designed condensers to pull the humidity out of the air to produce clean drinking water;
    • The German-based HelioTech produces clean drinking water from polluted water or sea water by first evaporating it using solar energy and then re-condensing it.

You might also want to check out Yvan Pestalozzi and his solar-powered kinetic sculptures.

I have to mention one other exhibitor, probably one you’ve heard of. The Seattle-based java giant Starbucks was giving away free drinks, including multiple double-shot lattes to one jet-lagged summit attendee from North Carolina. That was some well-needed energy for sure, but was it renewable?

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1 Comment

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  1. Jim
    Jan 22, 2010

    I hope some real innovation and collaboration comes out of the summit over the coming years. On another note, I am really dissapointed in the U.S. in general these days. The establishment seems to be winning out over innovation and change. With the recent supreme court ruling (which makes no sense to me) corporations will just be more entrenched. I fear that in every aspect the U.S. is fast heading towards marginalization instead of being a leader.

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