How much can be achieved in a decade? The Masdar plan 10 years on

As Masdar prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary on Thursday, has the project delivered on its early promises?

Masdar City is at the forefront of the UAE’s efforts to focus on renewable energy sources. Karim Sahib / AFP
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How much can be achieved in a decade? In April 2006, the government of Abu Dhabi announced the launch of a project that was designed to spearhead its transition away from fossil fuels, while simultaneously diversifying its economy and maintaining its position of influence in an energy market that had started to look beyond oil.

“Abu Dhabi is a global leader in the production of energy and the Masdar Initiative is a natural product of that position,” announced Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, at the launch event.

The first project of its type in the Middle East, Masdar – Arabic for source – was established with a grant of land for an institute offering postgraduate programmes in renewable energy.

It was deemed a special economic zone dedicated to companies looking to invest in sustainable initiatives and an innovation centre that would support, test and implement renewable energy technologies and products.

See more: Masdar's 10th anniversary: a decade of achievement

To cap it all, Sheikh Mohammed announced US$100 million (Dh368 million) for the creation of a for-profit, clean technology fund that would work with domestic and international partners to invest in clean energy and renewable technologies.

But as Masdar prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary on Thursday, has the project delivered on its early promises?

The answer is a resounding yes, according to the Minister of State and Masdar chairman, Sultan Al Jaber, who has guided the project since its inception.

“Masdar has had a tremendous impact on advancing the leadership’s vision for a diversified and knowledge-based economy,” he says.

“With the support of Masdar, Abu Dhabi is now home to a world-class research institution, host of the International Renewable Energy Agency, a major investor in clean energy and a hub for dialogue on how to drive the sustainability agenda forward.”

From the outside, however, the wider Masdar initiative is a complex entity that has always proved difficult to comprehend, let alone assess.

Not only does Masdar embrace initiatives as diverse as Masdar Capital, the organisation’s own private equity/venture capital arm, and Masdar Clean Energy, the body responsible for investments in utility-scale renewable energy projects worldwide, it also includes events such as the Zayed Future Energy Prize and the World Future Energy Summit, which have allowed Abu Dhabi to assume a continued position of influence and leadership when it comes to discussing the future of energy on the international stage.

The one element of the wider Masdar initiative that has always been most tangible is Masdar City, which has acted as a useful focal point for the project and a lightning rod for criticism.

When the original Foster + Partners-designed master plan was announced in 2007, the vision it conjured of an urban future that was self-sustaining, zero carbon and zero waste immediately captured the world’s attention, setting standards by which the project continues to be understood and judged (although these standards are no longer relevant).

“The issue has always been that Masdar City is such a visible component of what Masdar is doing that it tends to attract a lot more interest from across the spectrum – from school kids and tourists to architects and researchers and also investors,” says Masdar City’s director, Anthony Mallows.

“But what is happening to Masdar as we grow is not just that we are building the tangible city. We are also building a community.”

For Mr Mallows, that community includes the students and staff at the Masdar Institute and the employees who work for the project’s anchor tenants, such as GE and Siemens, as well as the airline employees who will soon move into the 500 units of corporate housing that are currently under construction and the tech companies who have decided to make Masdar City their base.

“When I joined, we had about 50 companies, but now, there are over 360 registered in Masdar City, from start-ups with flexi-desks who want to minimise their capital outlay while they grow, to people like Lockheed Martin, and we’re building space as fast as we can to accommodate that growth.”

Most importantly for Mr Mallows, Masdar City is approaching a point where it will be transformed from an educational and tech campus to a place people call home that is centered around a “community of innovation”.

“That’s beginning to happen in a way that I feel is far more robust than it did when I arrived here three years ago,” the urban designer says, describing the latest development plans that include market-rate housing, shops and a school that will finally transform Masdar City from a corporate and institutional campus into a town.

“We’ve reached a critical mass here,” Mr Mallows insists.

“In the first five to seven years of Masdar City’s development, when we really started building, we built around 200,000 square metres of stuff that you can see and touch and walk through, but in the next five years, we’re going to build 200,000 metres a year for five years.

“That is not speculation. That calculation is based on deals done, or in negotiation, on third party leases, or that we have self-developed and funded. It takes us from about 200,000 square metres to more than 1.2 million square metres by 2020,” he says.

“Not all the buildings will be built, but the deals will be done and whether the land will be developed or not will not be in question.”

If Anthony Mallows has helped to steer Masdar City on a course from architectural vision to hard-nosed business reality, it is a journey that mirrors the one that has been made by Badr Al Lamki, director of Masdar clean energy.

A chemical engineer by training, Mr Al Lamki worked in the conventional oil and gas sector before joining Masdar and entering the world of renewables.

It’s a shift that has led to him piloting some of Masdar’s most ambitious, utility-scale clean energy investments and deployments such as the 650 megawatt London Array offshore wind farm in the Thames estuary, which provides clean energy to 500,000 British homes.

“At first, we had to go through a period of evolution where we built the knowhow internally and then capitalised on what we learnt by recycling those lessons in our new projects,” Mr Al Lamki says.

“But I think today, we stand at a point where we can be seen as being credible. When Dudgeon, our second offshore wind farm in the UK comes online next year, we will have have 1.7 gigawatts of renewable energy generation in our portfolio that we will have developed, constructed and, more importantly, that we are operating,” he says.

“I think that in this part of the world in particular, that gives us the biggest portfolio with a proven track record that is more than just an aspiration. It’s a reality on the ground that can be felt and that can be touched.”

Despite working in very different fields, Mr Mallows and Mr Al Lamki depend on the same resource upon which the credibility of the whole Masdar project succeeds or fails – data.

Without data on the levels of emissions its projects have reduced, water and carbon they have saved, or energy they have generated, Masdar would be unable to justify its existence, and responsibility for generating this vital information falls to Dr Nawal Al Hosany.

“When I started at Masdar in 2008, my role was focused on the performance of the city in both its design and construction phase,” Masdar’s director of sustainability explains. “Capturing that knowledge was our priority from day one because we were producing a book of knowledge for something that had never been attempted before.

“But now we capture data from all of our assets – Masdar City, Shams 1 and the London Array – to ensure that we are not only meeting our own efficiency targets but that we are managing to improve.”

If anything is hardwired into the DNA of the many confusing facets of the wider Masdar operation, it is the desire for continual improvement that has kept the project on track for the past 10 years.

“This is an ecosystem,” Mr Mallows says. “Where all of the elements do their own thing, but where each of us learns from the other. If you think about that, it’s really quite innovative.”