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Masdar sustainability chief says Middle East at green energy “tipping point”

By Ed King

The Middle East is on its way to becoming a global hub for energy efficiency and renewable technology, one of the region’s green pioneers has told RTCC.

Nawal Al-Hosany is Director of Sustainability at Masdar in Abu Dhabi, the world’s first zero-carbon city and also a research institution, clean-tech investment portfolio and energy producer.

Speaking in Doha, Al-Hosany believes the oil and gas-rich Middle East is now at an “action tipping point”, which will see increasing investments in solar technology and efficient buildings in the coming decade.

“There is huge interest from the whole Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), who see it as an opportunity not only to retain energy sector leadership but also to secure their energy sources, because demand is growing, and they want to be in an industry that is emerging,” she says.

With over 50% of the world’s proven oil reserves and just under 40% of the world’s gas, the Middle East is likely to rely on fossil fuels for decades to come. It is also expected to be a far hotter place to live as climate change affects global temperatures – driving up demand for energy-eating air conditioning and desalinated water.

Saudi Arabia is investing $109bn in solar power, which it says will generate 30% of its electricity by 2030, but critics want to see more action and less promises

The IEA’s 2012 World Energy Outlook projects Middle East energy consumption will rise by 1.9% per year between now and 2035, with oil and gas meeting that demand, yet abundant sunlight means it also has huge solar energy potential.

The region already boasts some of the highest per-capita carbon footprints on the planet, but Al-Hosany argues that the region’s leaders understand they need to diversify, pointing to the 100MW Shams 1 solar power plant in Abu Dhabi and the 10MW plant that supplies Masdar City.

“We are not just talking or negotiating, we are actually building and participating in this action. We hear a lot of talk in the UN but it’s the action that needs to happen, and there is so much happening in the renewable energy sector in the region,” she says.

Saving money

A clear path to cutting energy consumption and carbon emissions is to invest in energy efficiency measures, which the IEA estimates has the potential to reduce energy consumption by up to 40%.

Air conditioning units in Doha’s flashy hotels work at overdrive – even in the winter months – guzzling electricity in an unrelenting struggle to keep conditions bearable.

While these greenhouse designs are clearly inappropriate for such hostile conditions, the architects of Masdar City went back to the future to design a modern environment with ancient Arabic qualities that doesn’t rely on machines to keep it cool.

“Traditional architecture was designed on how to protect from the environment but also how to use the environment for your advantage, because they did not have the mechanical solutions we have now,” Al-Hosany says.

“What we look at is how you capture the environment to make the building sustainable, and then you add the other elements, and that’s when you see the beauty of Masdar City, because every element has a story.

Masdar City’s designers say they have taken inspiration from ‘traditional Arab city planning’, reducing demand for heating, cooling and transport

“Why does the façade curve? It serves three elements – providing shade, a thermal mask so you reduce thermal transmission, protecting your privacy as a resident, and you reduce your costs of air conditioning. It serves the social, financial and environmental measures – and this is the story of Masdar.”

Masdar says residents use 54% less potable water and 51% less electricity than ‘business as usual’, adding that 30% of domestic electricity is provided by rooftop solar panels.

Changing minds

Turning heads is one trick – influencing behaviour is another. While the residents in Masdar live in an eco-haven where pedestrians can walk freely and public transport is the norm, outside its walls a different story prevails.

With petrol cheaper than water, cars still rule in the Middle East, and with few financial incentives to switch off the lights or turn down the air-con, it’s hard to see how regional leaders can enforce efficiency measures without starting a riot at the same time.

Ever the optimist, Al-Hosany argues the key is education and the provision of infrastructure that enables people to change their behaviour with the minimum of disruption to their lives – using the example of bicycle hire schemes that have been introduced in London, Paris and Mexico City.

More and more people are learning to be part of the solution, it’s just how we transition this in a smooth way,” she says. “If you implement change that is so dramatic you will change the lifestyle of people, there will be some kind of resistance, so it is a combined act – increase awareness and provide solutions as well.

“If the bikes are in random places people will be frustrated and won’t use them. You need to provide network and support through infrastructure to help them make the right choices and solutions. People adapt to change quickly – it’s amazing. There will be resistance but if it is done in a way that makes it easier for them they will adapt.”

Increased urgency

Dramatic change does not seem to be a policy choice of many Middle East leaders. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates announced they would make emission reduction pledges at the Doha climate talks – omitting to mention when they would do so and how ambitious these targets might be.

Former UN climate chief Michael Zammit Cutajar called Qatar’s failure to announce a financial package or ambitious emission cuts a “missed opportunity”. Others were not so diplomatic, with some accusing the hosts of using the summit to mask their lack of domestic climate action, a critique Al-Hosany rejects.

“If people are after greenwash there are much cheaper less complicated ways to do it, so I believe there is a huge will and leadership to make a change, and you can tell – it’s not just about talking but doing.

“Qatar, Saudi and UAE, the whole GCC is looking into renewable energy and sustainability seriously. Having the COP (UN summit) here helped us to shed the light on things we are doing.”

That scrutiny will stay long after the talks fade into distant memory – such is the Middle East’s role in the climate and energy security debate. Al-Hosany’s ambition is for Abu Dhabi to maintain its leadership in global clean-tech developments.

Investments in the London Array offshore wind farm, 20MW Gemasolar plant in Spain and a 15MW plant in Mauritania will ensure Masdar’s interest in the low carbon economy continues to grow – but above all she sees the City as being the new gold standard for innovative and energy efficient design.

“In a harsh environment like the UAE there is a huge level of interest in what lessons from Masdar City can be used – the principles, theories and approach, design and construction on a masterplan, city and business level.

“Our goal is for Masdar to be the baseline for how cities are designed and buildings are built. Instead of the ultimate, we want it to become the baseline.”

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