dec 08 | Fortune

A green city booms in the desert

by Julia Ioffe

In the sands of Abu Dhabi, a city of the future is taking shape. The leaders of the oil-laden nation have declared that petroleum belongs to the 20th century, so they are making an investment in the 21st century by buildings Masdar, the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste city, powered almost entirely by the desert's plentiful sun. Ground was broken last winter for the $22 billion project, financed by the government of Abu Dhabi and outside intestors and slated for completion in 2016. While more expensive to build than a traditional city, Masdar, hich will be home to 1,500 businesses, 50,000 residents, and 40,000 commuters, will use 75% less elctricity and 60% less water. Personal transportation pods powered by lithium batteries will replace cars, and wastewater will be routed to farms.

Masdar in Arabic means "source," and the name was picked for good reason. "We want to be the Silicon Valley of environmental design," says Gerard Evenden, a senior partner at Foster & Partners, the London architectural firm that created the city's master plan. Within the walls will be a green-tech research institute, developed with help from MIT. The city itself will act as a laboratory to test carbon-free products and prove that alterantive energy can be deployed on a massive scale. "We want Abu Dhabi to be an energy player, not just an exporter," says Khaled Awad, Masdar's Director of Property Development.

With its high-rise building boom and its huge air-conditioned shopping malls, the region is hardly a poster child for the environment. Yet Masdar, even if the global credit crunch slows its progress, is likely in the end to stand as a guidepost for urban planners everywhere.

A New Urban Ecosystem
Masdar, which sits on the sands of Abu Dhabi, is being built on a cement platform that's 21 feet thick and made of 60% recycled waste. By the time the project is complete - the estimated date is 2016 - officials hope it will have created some 70,000 jobs and become a global hub for green tech.

Oasis in the Desert
Eight stories tall and three blocks long, Masdar's administrative headquarters will be the world's first 100%-solar-powered office building, producing, when it opens in 2010, at least 3% more energy than it consumes.

Block that Heat
The layer of glass on the building's exterior reflects the sun's heat while allowing for natural light. The structure's north-south orientation protects inhabitants from the glare of the sun.

Solar Canopy
At 75,000 square feet, the one-piece roof is made of a steel trellis outfitted with electricity-generating solar cells. The canopy will connect 11 cooling towers.

Nature's AC
Made of 85% recycled steel, the building's 11 cooling towers use negative pressure to draw hot air away from its courtyards.

Cool Workers
Today's offices blow highly chilled air from the ceiling, wastefully cooling the entire space. Here air doesn't need to be as cold, since it circulates from the ground up.

Green Thumb
Several lush gardens will be irrigated with the building's waste water. The plants and trees help keep the environment cool and absorb carbon dioxide.

Shady Sidewalks
Tunnels will help keep temperatures cool and also serve as pedestrian passageways to the underground transit system.

Sun Power

  • Cars are banned within city limits. Commuters will park in round garages and take light rail or electric transportation pods.
  • Solar thermal farms, which concentrate the sun's heat with mirrors to create power, will supply a quarter of the city's electricity.
  • Photovoltaic plants, which use silicon cells to turn sunlight directly into electricity, provide the city with carbon-free power.
  • The city's waste water irrigates urban farms that grow biofuels.
  • Solar-powered desalination plants provide potable water.

A Clean Ride
Autos are banned in Masdar. Instead, commuters can hop on the personal rapid transit (PRT) system, which will consist of some 3,000 electric cars that operate on a recyclable litthium-cadmium battery, whose charge can be topped off while the vehicle is waiting at a station. Each car can hold six passengers, who will be transported nonstop to any one of 83 stations in the city.

You Can Get there from Here
In this pedestrian-friendly city, residents will never have to walk more than 500 feet in any direction to arrive at a PRT stop. Electronic interactive maps show the most direct of 200,000 possible routes. Most of the roadways are housed in underground tunnels in the city's concrete platform.