Green Power Player

Green Power Player

Who’s the most powerful person in the world of green business?

It might be Jeff Immelt, ceo of General Electric, with its far-reaching eco-magination iniative. It might be Lee Scott, ceo of Wal-Mart, which is greening the world of consumer products. You could make an argument for John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins who with his pal and partner Al Gore aim to make Kleiner the leading venture capital firm for clean energy. Others have clout, too—Washington politicians, the leaders of the big environmental groups, pundit Tom Friedman of The Times.

But the most powerful of all might turn out to be someone whose name you probably don’t know: Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber.

Al-Jaber is chief executive of the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (ADFEC), which was created by the government of Abu Dhabi to lead the Masdar Initiative. You’ve probably heard about the new city of Masdar, which is being designed and built as a zero-emissions, zero-waste, automobile-free city in Abu Dhabi. I wrote a column about Masdar city in March.

But there’s a lot more going on at Masdar than the new city, as I learned when I had a chance to sit down with Sultan—that’s his first name (he isn’t a sultan), and that’s how he wanted me to address him, so I will do so here. .

Sultan was in Washington this week to testify before Congress about clean energy, met with Masdar partners and generally spread the word about the $15 billion—yes, billion—initiative, which is moving along at a brisk clip.

Here’s what he said about Masdar City before a congressional committee:

For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, with their traditional energy inefficiencies, waste and pollution. We must fundamentally re-think how cities can conserve energy and other resources. We must heavily employ new technologies and even create new urban models, as we are doing in Masdar City.

Here are some things I learned about Sultan in our conversation: He is 34. He earned a degree in chemical engineering and an MBA from USC, after starting college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then a stint at the Colorado School of Mines. (He evidently preferred the southern California sunshine.) He owns a couple of two-wheel Segway vehicles to get around. (Masdar is an investor in Segway.) And he is really excited about marshalling the money, the will, the brainpower and the commitment of the leaders of Abu Dhabi to drive the global adoption of clean energy.

“I don’t want to sound arrogant,” Sultan told me, “but the truth is, we are creating history. We’re very passionate about it.”

He said the Masdar initiative has four broad goals—to diversify the Abu Dhabi economy which now depends heavily on oil and gas, to turn Abu Dhabi into an exporter of technology and knowledge (which it now mostly imports), to develop the human capital in the emirate and to maintain leadership in what he called the “post-fossil fuel era” (his phrase, not mine).

The city is the centerpiece of the effort, but just as important is the university that Masdar is developing in cooperation with MIT. It will be open only to graduate students, who will have to meet MIT admission standards. They won’t have to pay tuition. They’ll also have the chance to test out their ideas and technology in the new city. Presumably, the best ideas can get funded by ADFEC.

“Masdar City is not a real estate play,” Sultan said. “It has much more to offer. It is beiong modeled after Silicon Valley.”

Besides the city and the university, Masdar has a $250 million venture capital fund that has made investments in other VC funds as well as direct investments in clean technology startups. (Here’s the portfolio.) Other investors in the fund include Credit Suisse and Siemens.

Last month, Masdar said it will invest up to $2 billion to build its own own thin-film solar company. The first plant will be constructed in Germany because demand for solar panels is robust in Europe; then a copycat plant will be built in Abu Dhabi, the first solar-energy manufacturing plant in the Persian Gulf. A third plant may be built in the U.S. Applied Materials of Santa Clara, Ca., will supply the equipment

Other companies working on projects with Masdar include GE, which is developing wind power in Masdar, and British Petroleum and Rio Tinto, which are working on a hydrogen power plant. Masdar has also created what it calls the Zayed Future Energy Prize, with an annual prize pool of $2.3 million, to reward achievements in energy innovation. The first winner will be announced in 2009.

Sitting in Washington, discussing all this with Sultan, I was struck by the fact that, when it comes to energy, Abu Dhabi has a clearer sense of where it wants to go and how it wants to get there than either the Bush administration or the Congress. Of course, it’s easier to develop a coherent policy and to get things done in a tiny, wealthy nation governed by a royal family with a strong sense of purpose.

As Sultan put it: “Either we can be leaders or we can be followers. We want to lead the way. And the time for action is now.”