Masdar City: Developing the Zero Carbon Emission City

Jose Garcia
December 16, 2011

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2011


Abu Dhabi, which controls 8% of the world's oil reserves and has the largest per capita carbon footprint in the world, may seem like an unlikely place for a revolution in clean energy production. [1] Nonetheless, it is here that the push for the carbon neutral city has begun as Abu Dhabi pushes efforts to decrease its impact on the environment and to ensure its continued relevance in the world energy market. The 22 billion dollar project, 15 million of which will be provided by Abu Dhabi's government, began in 2006 and aims to build a city in the UAE desert by the year 2016 that will generate its own energy while producing no waste. [2,3] Masdar, which means "source" in Arabic, will be home to 50,000 residents; a University, operated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, focused on sustainability; and is expected to attract 1,500 businesses. [4]

Plans for the City

The city is planned to use various methods to generate the energy it requires including using photovoltaic plants, concentrating solar thermal power, waste-to-energy plants and geothermal power. [5] The majority of the energy will be harvested by a 10-megawatt photovoltaic field outside the city that will harvest some of the 2044 KwH/m2 of solar irradiation per year that the area receives. [6] Additionally, tests are being conducted to harvest direct sunlight by using a system of mirrors that generates energy by concentrating sunlight to heat water. [2] In addition to generating clean energy, Masdar plans to produce no waste. All garbage generated by the city will be sorted and recycled or used for compost. Garbage that cannot be reused using these options, along with sewage sludge, will be processed into energy. [3]

Aside from generating clean energy, the city has also placed great efforts in reducing energy use overall. Masdar is planned to run on about 30% of the energy required by a comparable city of the same size. [5] To accomplish this, the entire city is connected to a smart grid which tracks the energy consumption of its residents. This system encourages the city's people to be more mindful of their energy use and also restricts usage of resources using methods such as automatically shutting off showers. Another energy saving feature planned for the city is an underground transportation system where driverless electric vehicles will transport residents to different stops throughout the city. [3]

One of the city's biggest concerns is managing the hot desert temperature. Air conditioning requires constant high energy use that on hot days also places large electricity loads on a city's generators. In fact, air cooling accounts for 41% of the energy consumption in Abu Dhabi and 60% of peak capacity. [6] Windows in every building are also heavily insulated to prevent heat from entering and city officials limit the air conditioning in buildings to a low of 77 degrees Fahrenheit. [1,4] To reduce cooling needs further, the city's layout has been designed to maximize air flow at street level. A 147-foot tall wind tower with LED lights running down its side informs residents of the city's energy consumption and funnels a breeze down to street level. [1] Streets are also narrow and welled in by buildings which block sunlight from directly reaching citizens. Masdar officials say that these measures work so well that they allow the city to feel up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than its surroundings. [1]

Masdar City Today

Today Masdar city has finished its first phase of construction and plans to finish the second within the next year. The Masdar Institute has enrolled 167 students and a few residents live in the city. [7] However, a recession has slowed the development of green energy technologies and has forced the completion time of the city to be pushed back to sometime between 2021 and 2025. [7] The energy goals of the city have also been lowered for now, requiring that the city run on as much as 50% the energy requirements of a comparable city as well as allowing for the use of outside energy sources that may not be waste free. [1] This is the result of dust storms hindering the efficiency of the photovoltaic panels outside of the city by as much as 30%, which require they be cleaned by hand. Additionally, the underground transportation system has been placed on hold and a surface system of electric cars is being used instead. [7]

Despite not meeting many of the goals placed in 2006, Masdar City has introduced innovative technologies that have set an example for cities throughout the world. Having designed the city to be as energy efficient and clean as possible has pushed the design and construction process to the best results current technologies have allowed for. Although only time will tell, Masdar city may not be the first carbon neutral city, but it is the first step.

© Jose Garcia. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] B. Walsh, "Masdar City: The World's Greenest City?," Time, 25 Jan 11.

[2] S. Crampsie, "City of Dreams," Engineering and Technology 3, No. 15, 50 (2008).

[3] K. Bullis, "A Zero-Emissions City in the Desert," Technology Review, March/April 2009.

[4] M. Vella, "Rise of the Carbon-Neutral City," Bloomberg Businessweek, 11 Feb 08.

[5] Sam Nader, "Paths to a Low-Carbon Economy - the Masdar Example," Energy Procedia 1, 3951 (2009).

[6] Marwan Mokhtar et al., "Systematic Comprehensive Techno-Economic Assessment of Solar Cooling Technologies Using Location-Specific Climate Data," Appl. Energy 87, 3766 (2010).

[7] J. Vidal, "Masdar City - A Glimpse of the Future in the Desert," The Guardian, 26 Apr 11.