Abu Dhabi's Green Ambitions: An Emirate Focused on Energy

Abu Dhabi's Green Ambitions: An Emirate Focused on Energy

"You've got one of the oil capitals of the world taking a strong interest in renewable energy," Tony Blair said. "It's quite impressive to see."

Yes, it's impressive. Blair, the former British prime minister, held a brief news conference before delivering the closing speech at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi. Like most of the speakers at the event, which brought 15,000 people to this oil-rich emirate on the Persian Gulf, he called for global regulation of greenhouse gases, investments in solar and wind power and international cooperation to share technology with poor nations.

"It is right now," Blair said, "at the instant when our thoughts are centered on the economic challenge, that we must not set to one side the challenge of global warming, but instead resolve to meet it and put the world on path to a sustainable future."

Abu Dhabi's heading down the path, in a hurry. By now, if you've paid any attention (or if you read this front-page story in The Times last week), you've heard about the zero-carbon, zero-waste, powered-by-solar Masdar City, which is being built outside of downtown Abu Dhabi.

But did you know that the city will also include the world's biggest and most sophisticated PRT (personalized rapid transit) system, computer-driven vehicles that will take people exactly where they want to go, nonstop? Here's what the PRT vehicles will look like (Phil Clark provided his photo below to GreenBiz):

The PRT prototype. Image by Phil Clark. See his blog at www.zerochampion.com
And did you know that the Masdar Initiative, the parent company for Abu Dhabi's alternative energy ventures, is going to build what could be the world's largest carbon-capture and storage operation?

And did you know that Masdar is building a solar panel manufacturing plant in Germany, which will then be duplicated in Abu Dhabi, and quite likely after that in the U.S.?

And did you know that Abu Dhabi also has plans to build as many as 10 nuclear power plants?

Now that's Beyond Petroleum.

The cost of all this is a cool $22 billion, although the Masdar Initiative, as a for-profit entity, hopes to make money back by renting out offices and homes in the city, selling energy to the rest of the Middle East and investing in clean energy businesses. Masdar, for instance, is an investor in Solyndra, a fast-growing solar PV company based in Fremont, Ca., with more than $1.5 billion in orders.

What Abu Dhabi is doing is uncommon in business. Rarely does a company (or, in this case, a country) that is thriving in one industry set out to become a leader in a competing business. Usually companies, or entire industries, are too busy protecting themselves against competition. Think about how the newspaper industry and the music industry missed opportunities on the Internet. If they had been willing to disrupt themselves, some classified ad guy would have started eBay and craigslist, and some music promoter would have invented iTunes.

Certainly Abu Dhabi doesn't need to expand its operations. The average net worth for Abu Dhabi's 420,000 citizens is US$ 17 million, which is why most of the work in the city is done by expatriates from south Asia, Africa and the rest of the Middle East. Nevertheless, the ruling family has decided to use its wealth to diversify and anticipate the changes to come.

As Masdar CEO Sultan Al-Jaber put it: "The world has reached a tipping point in the acceptance of renewable energy."

I can't really tell you why the country has set out in this new direction. When I asked Masdar people, I was essentially told that this was due to the sagacity of the royal family, and specifically to the wisdom of the overseer of Masdar, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the armed forces. The Sheikh doesn't do interviews, so I couldn't ask him directly about his thinking. (Disclosure: The Crown Prince paid for my trip to Abu Dhabi.)

I can tell you that the Sheikh has several things going for him that American CEOs don't. He doesn't have to worry about quarterly earnings, so he can invest for the long term. He doesn't have to answer to shareholders. He doesn't have to get elected. And no one will tell him publicly that he's crazy to be spending money on solar power and green buildings because he can't be criticized in the press.

I also can't tell you whether the Masdar Initiative will succeed in its many ventures. But I can say that I don't know of any company, or any country, that is doing more to lead the world to a low-carbon economy.