Whatever you think about the rulers of Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates and host of this week’s World Future Energy Summit, you have to give them credit for thinking long-term.
Matter of fact, the most significant word in the name of this global clean energy conference is future.
Because today, Abu Dhabi is awash in oil money and emitting carbon at a furious pace.
An emirate of 1.6 million people, tucked between Oman and Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Gulf, Abu Dhabi looks to a visitor like a vast sprawling, construction site, each luxury development more lavish than the next. Most labor here is performed by workers imported from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. (Oil flows out, people flow in.) Broad avenues are crowded with cars. Skyscrapers, hotels and palaces are lit all night. There’s nothing “green” about any of that.
Yet the ruling family is investing many millions and perhaps billions of dollars in clean energy, including solar, wind, nuclear, coal capture and sequestration, efficiency, the smart grid and an entirely new, supposedly clean, high-tech new city called Masdar City. The Masdar company is also investing in clean tech startups around the world, including U.S.-based solar companies Solyndra and HelioVolt; it is building a “solar park” with a local partner in a suburb of Berlin and it is an investor in the big London Array offshore wind project in the UK.
No wonder Abu Dhabi and Masdar have the attention of global leaders and big companies–Hillary Clinton visited last week, the UN chief Ban Ki Moon is here today, the heads of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iceland are coming and giant multinationals including Daimler, ExxonMobil, BP, Total, Shell, Siemens, GE and Johnson Controls are all exhibiting this week. MIT helped develop an institute of science and technology that is already operating in Masdar City.
Hopes are high. As Mrs. Clinton put it:
We are betting that this incredible investment represented by Masdar is going to pay off, and when it pays off it will not only mean a better life for the people of this country and this region, it will have ripple effects throughout the world.
But when and how will the investment pay off? That’s harder to say.
Certainly the rhetoric and the scope of the Masdar initiative are impressive. The venture is not betting on any one technology or solution, but investing in many, including nuclear power and what it calls “clean fossil fuels.”
To ensure the emergence of the most commercially viable, scalable and efficient technology, we must create competition, not across the energy mix, but instead, within each technology share.
This way, renewable energy sources will compete against other renewable energy sources, for available R&D funds and financial incentives.
This is impressive, given the fact that Abu Dhabi, by its own estimate, has enough hydrocarbon reserves at current production levels to last 100 years. Investing in clean energy, Dr. Jaber said, is a way of diversifying today’s economy and preparing for a low-carbon or post-carbon future.
Masdar Carbon, for example, is developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to capture CO2 from power plants and heavy industry. It’s also building pipelines from those facilities to the oil fields. The captured CO2 will then be injected into the ground to result in additional oil production, replacing natural gas which is currently used for that purpose; the CCS process gets more oil out of the ground and permits the export of more natural gas.
Carbon capture and storage, according to Masdar, should also
protect the global demand for hydrocarbons–and thus the value of Abu Dhabi’s in-ground hydrocarbon reserves–in a carbon-constrained future, since CCS will help mitigate the likelihood of potential adverse policies or trade barriers by providing the means to burn oil and gas in a clean manner.
Is that “green”? You decide.
Until the clean energy future arrives, oil, banking, trade, real estate and tourism will driving the economy in Abu Dhabi and the rest of the UAE. The UAE is the world’s third largest oil exporter, behind Saudia Arabia and Russia. Dubai, famously, has a ski slope inside a shopping mall.
Wait, there’s more. The New Internationalist magazine says this about the UAE:
Not only does this desert state hold several verdant golf courses for tourists, the temperatures of the sand on some of its beaches are even cooled so that 7-star guests need never worry about burning their tender soles! With even polo ponies living in state-of-the-art air-conditioned quarters, and with virtually no public transport, it is unsurprising that the Worldwide Fund for Nature ranked the UAE as having the worst per capita carbon footprint in the world. The government acknowledges this issue and has invested in renewable energies to some extent, but freely admits that as long as there is a need for fresh water and temperatures in the Gulf region remain high, environmentally costly desalination and air conditioning will continue unabated.
The future can’t come soon enough.