The Mecca of Renewable Energy

The Mecca of Renewable Energy

In these dismal economic times, it's remarkable that 15,000 to 20,000 people traveled to Abu Dhabi, of all places, for a clean-energy conference. The renewable energy business, after all, is reeling from the global recession, the credit crunch and the precipitous drop in the price of oil.

Signs of distress are not hard to find. There hasn't been a successful clean tech IPO since First Solar went public in 2006. Wind power and solar energy companies are laying off workers, according to Greentech Media. Shares of renewable energy companies tumbled in 2008: The WilderHill New Energy Global Innovation Index (ticket symbol NEX) fell by 61%.

Nevertheless, here in Abu Dhabi, the mood at the World Future Energy Summit is surprisingly upbeat. Partly that's because, 7,000 miles away, Barack Obama is about to become the next president of the United States, and there's hope that his "green stimulus" program will deliver much-needed funds for research and tax incentives that will spur investment in energy efficiency and renewables.

Mostly, though, the business people and government officials here are optimistic because the fundamentals driving the renewable energy sector -- namely, rising demand for power, the threat of climate change and energy security -- are as strong as ever.

About 1.6 billion people in the world still don't have an on-off switch in their lives; they'll need energy to escape poverty. The science around climate change gives us more, not less, reason to act. As for energy security, Russia's threats to cut off natural gas to eastern Europe are just the most recent reminder of why no nation wants to be too dependent on others for energy.

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, who is chief executive of the Masdar Initiative, the clean-energy company that is sponsoring the conference, put it in this way in his opening address: "Renewable energy continues to make absolute sense, even in difficult times such as these."

As if to underscore the point, Al Jaber announced that Abu Dhabi has pledged to generate 7% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

"This is a bold statement from an OPEC-member state whose economy is dominated by oil and gas," he said.

It also represents "a significant business opportunity for local and international companies."

That's why about 300 companies and 20 governments have sent delegations to Abu Dhabi. (See below for an array of corporate logos from the exhibition floor.) These companies see renewable energy as a big business, going forward.

Said Al-Jaber: "The progress we are making is irreversible."

Some other observations from my second day in Abu Dhabi:

The view from MIT: Because MIT is a research partner of Masdar, Susan Hockfield, the university's president, was the only academic to deliver a plenary speech at the conference. She advocated an all-of-the-above approach to energy, saying that with sufficient research, "safer nuclear" and "cleaner coal" will be part of the mix.

So will solar energy, Hockfield said, about which there is enormous excitement these days at MIT. "The amount of sunlight that reaches the earth's surface in an hour contains enough energy to meet the world's energy needs for a year," Hockfield said.

Another big opportunity lies in energy storage. Improvements in battery technology, she predicted, will transform electric cars from a "quaint, pricey boutique option" to a "mainstream affordable solution."

She also talked about research into new forms of energy storage, including "carbon nanotube-based ultra capacitors" and "benign viruses that self-assemble into extremely light flexible battery components without producing toxic byproducts." For more on the latter, see this.

What's wrong with this picture?
: The Gulf News, an English language daily here, provides decent coverage of the U.S. and Europe, drawing from global wire services. A Maureen Dowd column about Bush and Obama ran this morning, as did dispatches from The Economist.

But there's not a word of criticism of the ruling family of the UAE and coverage of the war in Gaza is one-sided. A column by the editor-in-chief of the paper compared Israel's treatment of the Palestinians to Hitler's treatment of Jews.

And a tourism map of Abu Dhabi given out by the Sheraton Hotel, where I'm staying, has a decidedly Arab-centric view: On a map of the region, showing Abu Dhabi's location in the Persian Gulf, Israel simply doesn't exist.

The World Really is Flat: Few cities anywhere are as globalized as Abu Dhabi, where between 80 and 90% of the people are expats. Most are laborers but many are well-educated professionals from the Middle East, Asia and Europe.

TV channels broadcast in many languages. The hotel offers Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese and Indian channels, along with CNN, Bloomberg, ESPN and Fox Sports.

So I had high hopes of watching the NFC and AFC championship games over the weekend when I checked in, and I wasn't disappointed. The thing is, the only channel showing the games was broadcasting them….in German.

Some logos from the exhibition floor:

I'm not sure if a hybrid Chevy Tahoe really belongs at a clean energy exhibition.