Masdar Institute, the First solar powered building at Masdar City, United Arab Emirates. (Courtesy Nigel Young/Foster + Partners)
Imagine that, instead of fighting traffic behind a steering wheel or rubbing shoulders with strangers on a stuffy subway car, your morning commute started in the silent cabin of a self-propelled electric pod, guided by magnets, powered by the sun, scooting through a labyrinth of underground tunnels at a comfortable 15 mph. Your gas cost? Zero. Subway fare? Zero. Commute Stress? Nada. In our current fossil fuel-dependent world, such a scenario might seem equal parts futuristic and improbable, but in a desolate stretch of Arabian desert sustainable commutes are just a small cog in a much larger carbon-neutral dream.
In the heart of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, just 20 miles east of the capital city of Abu Dhabi, architects and government officials are erecting a 2.3 square mile carbon-neutral city with the hope that the design will pave the way for a world without fossil fuel. Conceived in 2006, Masdar City is an $18 billion slice of a larger government effort to invest in renewable and clean-energy infrastructure for the future. By 2025 Emirates' officials estimate that Masdar City will be a bustling hub of 90,000 -- 40,000 residents and 50,000 commuters -- living entirely off of renewable energy while producing negligible waste.But how can a city in the middle of a searing, resource-deprived desert operate carbon free? First, engineers had to provide a clean energy source with enough capacity to fuel the Masdar City of now and the future. Engineers took the first step in 2009 with the completion of a $50 million, 10 megawatt solar photovoltaic power plant - the largest solar farm in the Middle East - to power Masdar City in its infancy. That power plant couples with a smaller 1 Megawatt solar facility spanning the city's rooftops to supply all of Masdar City's current energy needs. But with the city expected to expand six-fold by the end of 2013, engineers will have to expand energy sources, too. Initial plans called for a $2.2 billion hydroelectric facility, as well as a wind-turbine farm, but economic pressures have scrapped one and delayed the other, according to The Guardian.
Even with established clean energy sources to power the eco-city, the city's architects needed to find a way to limit energy consumption in a place where weather conditions can be brutal.
"The climate is similar to that of Phoenix, except hotter and much, much drier," said Nick Wiltgen, meteorologist with The Weather Channel. "From May through July measurable rainfall is virtually unheard of, and average high temperatures in July and August top out at 108."
You need not look further than neighboring Abu Dhabi to see how the extreme climate in the region can influence energy consumption. Energy consumption in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi more than quadrupled from just over 6 GHW a year in 2005 to 26,897 GHW in 2011, according to the Abu Dhabi Statistics Center, primarily to satiate cooling demands created by a burgeoning city located in a scorching desert. To avoid Abu Dhabi's pitfalls, Masdar City's architects, Foster and Partners, sought out a surprising source of inspiration: the past. According to the New York Times, the architects studied ancient civilizations to conjure up a solution to cooling -- and by extension energy consumption -- concerns.
Some ambitious designs that arose out of the research, like plans to build the city on a 23-foot-high base to maximize breeze flow through the city streets, were scrapped due to financial issues, but others stuck. One of the most distinct of which is Masdar City's "windtower," a nearly 150 foot reimagination of an ancient Middle Eastern design that pulls cool, lofty breezes from higher elevations down the tower and hurls them out into the city streets. Narrow streets and angled construction were implemented to maximize shade and reduce temperatures from direct sun exposure. In all, the architects estimated they could make Masdar City feel 70 degrees cooler, according to The Times.
And the innovative construction is already paying dividends. The buildings that comprise the city's university -- the Masdar Institute -- are designed to use 54 percent less potable water and 51 percent less electricity than an average building, with 30 percent of the buildings' power and 75 percent of all hot water contributed from rooftop solar and thermal facilities, according to city officials. In addition to energy-reducing construction, transportation in and around Masdar is designed to obviate the use of fossil fuels.City streets are completely car free--all vehicles must be abandoned in a garage outside of the city's massive wall. Instead, the aforementioned electric pods, known as Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), were proposed to provide fast, convenient transportation across all of Masdar.
But when the city abandoned plans to build Masdar on a 23-foot-high base, an all encompassing PRT network was abandoned, too; the only remnant of the PRT system is a half mile stretch that cuts through the city center, taking passengers straight from the garage to the Masdar Institute. Indeed, if Masdar is to reach its ambitious eco-heights, the city must solve the transportation equation. Current plans call for an extension to Abu Dhabi's public transit coupled with a fleet of electric rail, but as it stands, the best mode of transportation remains foot traffic. But if the government and city planners can iron-out solutions to transportation and energy production in the face of economic insecurity, and Masdar City continues to build on its current successes, this desert oasis could offer a glimpse into an entirely sustainable future.
MORE: Could Climate Change Do This to the West Coast?
The Venice Beach, Calif. boardwalk now. (Nickolay Lamm)