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February 25, 2008

The City of the Sun
Posted by Adam Blickstein

One would think that the notion of Middle East investment in alternative energy is a lot like McDonalds starting to trumpet Tofu BigMacs as the next big wave in fast food:  bad for their bottom line (though it may be marginally better for America’s waist line). Masdarcity2_2But incredibly, the region’s investment in renewable energy resources—especially Wind and Solar—is amongst the highest in the world. This is most apparent in Abu Dhabi, where the Masdar City initiative is the standard bearer for sustainable urban planning. The nearly $22 billion project would create a commercial and population center of nearly 50,000 with zero-emissions, powered by solar including a fully functioning eco-friendly waste management system.  And it should be aesthetically  pleasing with Sir Norman Foster visionary design, though it might look a little like Logan's Run surrounded by sand.

Ironic that in thisMasdarcity1_2 oil-rich desert, you find one of the most forward thinking plans experimenting with what may be our post-oil energy future by the fourth largest OPEC producer. Of course the UAE has more money than they know what to do with —and will for sometime due to their massive sovereign wealth fund—as well as ample interest from outside investors in their infrastructure and long-term incentive to look past oil. But it’s a bit of energy-based geo-strategic taunting of the Western nation’s that depend on foreign oil and speak loudly about energy independence that they are the ones leading the charge. Whereas we are in greater need for investment in alternative energy resources for a variety of security, environmental, strategic and economic reasons, Middle Eastern investment should be a bit of a wakeup call that we need to catch up. It will be impossible for Arizona to be the Persian Gulf of Solar Energy if Persian Gulf nations already beat us to the power punch.

And after all, would a country that barely invests in basic infrastructure such as roads and bridges be serious about the radical infrastructural changes needed to make America truly energy independent?


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The demand that sets oil prices comes from abroad. If you're a consumer, it doesn't matter where you are, you're still competing with China for that barrel of oil and your paying $100. So it makes perfect sense that power consumers in the middle east would demand alternatives.

Heck, it's a perfect strategy -- use cheaper alternatives at home and sell the expensive stuff to China, India and the U.S.

Why would any of this be thought incredible? Solar and wind-based technologies obviously work best in areas where the sun shines most of the time and the winds are strong and regular. Moreover, any government reliant on oil revenues will have access to information about how large its oil reserves are and how long they will last. Unless these questions' respective answers are "infinite" and "forever" it is perfectly sensible to devote some spare cash to solar and wind.

Its a nice gesture by the Emiratis, but I'm dubious. I've been to Abu Dhabi and seen the royal family's plans for Masdar City, and its clearly no more than a demonstration project meant to win over American and European elites looking to assuage their guilty consciences about Persian Gulf oil consumption. A more sustainable solution is not solar and wind energy (which, given current technologies, is scale- and cost-limited) but energy efficiency. The UAE and states throughout the Gulf are prodigious energy wasters. This is the land of the indoor ski course, after all!

Not only do they face the same prices for oil as their foreign customers, but isn't transporting oil by boat much more efficient than transmitting already generated electricity over power-lines?

The City of the Sun article by Adam Blickstein is eye opening information about Abu Dhabi investing $22 billion dollars into wind and solar energy. This is a most aggressive project for a country that sits on a oil rich desert. This should serve as a wake up call to the USA. Today, every man, woman and child in the USA is paying $40.00 per day to a oil rich country who is now investing the money in renewable energy.

Perhaps the Abu Dhabi Sheikh has hit on a self-perpetuating engine which will be difficult to duplicate. Abu Dhabi's oil wealth permits it to buy the state-of-the-art technology to produce the most efficient solar cells and the process technologists as well to establish a solar energy industry. It's own terrain offers an ample supply of readily available silicon oxide for refining into the base material for making solar cells and the abundant sunshine will enable Abu Dhabi to refine the silicon using its own solar technology. Once they can establish a technological edge on producing solar cells they can establish an energy hegemony similar to the one they currently have in petroleum.

Incidentally, Abu Dhabi need not worry about transporting electricity as their most recent energy export. While not the most efficient system, they could opt for mass production of hydrogen gas and then ship it to users just like they might do with compressed natural gas. The technologies would be similar. Somebody has to provide all that hydrogen everyone keeps advocating as an alternative fuel, why not Abu Dhabi?

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