World’s First Zero-Carbon City?

World’s first zero-carbon city? In Dubai? I must have been asleep when this story started making the rounds a couple of weeks ago. I just saw the story in a local newspaper, but a Google search shows that the story first hit the wires about 2 weeks ago:

UAE starts work on world’s first zero-carbon city

ABU DHABI (AFP) — The oil-rich United Arab Emirates was set to start work on Sunday on construction of the world’s first zero carbon emissions city, a spokesman for the project said.

“Construction on Masdar City begins today,” the spokesman told AFP, adding that the 6.5-square-kilometre (2.5-square-mile) development will cost 22 billion dollars and is set for completion in 2015.

Masdar City will house 50,000 people and will be run entirely on renewable energy including solar power, exploiting the desert state’s near constant supply of sunshine.

The city, which is named after the Arabic word for “source”, will be built in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi. Residents will use electric-powered travel pods to move around the city.

The UAE sits on the world’s fifth largest oil reserves and fourth largest gas reserves, most of them in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Proven oil reserves alone are expected to last for another 150 years but, like most oil-producing countries, the UAE wants to diversify to ease its reliance on oil.

The UAE has the world’s largest ecological footprint, consuming more natural resources per capita than any other nation, according to a 2004 report by the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Funny, I thought this sort of thing would be done first in California or Oregon – or in a place that already has a very low carbon footprint. I think the biggest challenge for this project is getting enough solar power to run peak air-conditioning loads. I think that will be the limiting factor in this experiment. Well, that and getting people from an oil-rich nation who are accustomed to using all of the fossil fuel they want, to actually move to this new city. After all, they aren’t exactly accustomed to living an environmentally friendly lifestyle.

More coverage, including skepticism from environmentalists:

Work starting on world’s first zero-carbon city

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — This Gulf desert nation, one of the world’s most environmentally unfriendly with its ubiquitous air conditioning, swimming pools and SUVs, might be looking to redeem itself. It has begun building what it calls the world’s first zero-carbon city.

“Every little bit helps,” said Jonathan Loh, a British biologist who co-authored a 2006 World Wildlife Fund report that measured consumption by nations around the world. “It would be best if the UAE reduced energy consumption throughout the country not just in one location.”

Then, reiterating my thoughts above:

Nearly every indoor space — including sprawling malls and giant villas — is air conditioned, seen as a necessity in a country where the winters are hot and the summers blazing. Extravagances like swimming pools with chilled water, an indoor ski slope that produces snow when it’s 120 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside and an all-ice restaurant push up the electricity bill. The unusual mode of transport is SUV or Hummer — there is no public transportation, or even sidewalks in most parts of the city.

Not sure how they are going to address the air conditioning problem. Anyone ever calculated how much roof space you need to run peak air conditioning on solar panels in a hot location?

8 thoughts on “World’s First Zero-Carbon City?”

  1. Anyone ever calculated how much roof space you need to run peak air conditioning on solar panels in a hot location?

    Problem on the Persian/Arabian Gulf is that it is hot & humid in the summer — which lasts a long time. Air conditioning is not a peak issue, as in California. It is needed around the clock in summer.

    Because of the climate, lots of people work split shifts — morning & evening — so the demand for energy is high after dark. Much shopping takes place after the sun has gone down. There are traffic jams at midnight.

    A solar city in that part of the world will work only with some substantial form of energy storage. The UAE can certainly afford to pay for enegy storage. Question is whether large scale storage technology is really available.

    There is a broader issue, though, about the location of the technological cutting edge. Want to fly on Europe’s pride, the AirWhale 380? Go to Singapore. Want to ride on a magnetic levitation train? Go to China. The world is moving on.

  2. Robert,

    I ran the numbers on air conditioning my house on photovoltaic solar (I live in Phoenix Arizona) and then calculated what it would take to do it with thermal solar running an adsorption chiller. The same amount of AC cost about 1/3 as much with the ammonia system.

    Richard Jones

  3. On the other hand, when you have this much heat, this consistently, you can accomplish cooling and dehumidification with thermally-driven ad/bsorbtion systems and thermally-recharged desiccant systems, and you can ventilation with thermally-driven stack effect. So you don’t need to make the same whopload of electricity that you might otherwise.

    It’s not clear to me, however, that they have the design culture required to adopt these solutions on a wide scale. When you have infinite energy available, your engineers get used to solving problems by hitting them with the big energy hammer, rather than by being clever. I know that’s a problem in the US; I assume that it’s at least as bad in the UAE, though I could certainly be wrong (no direct experience).

  4. The interesting thing about PV is that it would have a secondary cooling effect, not unlike putting mirrors on the roof.

    If you short- or open-circuit a PV panel it gets significantly hotter in the sun than if you run it through an ideal load.

    At the same time, a heat-cycle AC system plus the hypothetical mirrors would probably be cheaper.

  5. Someone wrote to say that they had trouble posting a comment. So, here is the comment which they e-mailed to me:


    I would think that that some form of energy storage would be needed to supply more reliable base load and evening power. Solar thermal employs hot salt heat storage schemes that could work. Solar PV could also store power using compressed air, or even store “cooling potential” in large refrigeration systems that are tapped into at night. I have never been to Dubai, but I assume it is fairly flat. Otherwise you could also use hydropower from large covered water reservoirs at different elevations (Santiago Chile would be a good example of readily available delta height for hydro-storage schemes using solar or wind). I suspect there is probably a 25-33% penalty for storage systems…meaning you would have to plan 25-33% greater capacity for nighttime power from stored systems.

    I am surprised that nobody has mentioned the possible use of geothermal heat exchangers to supply needed cooling. Dig down into sand and you will find cooler temperatures. Here is a reference from Wikipedia Geothermal_exchange_heat_pump:

    “The Earth below the frost line remains at a relatively constant temperature year round. This temperature equates roughly to the average annual air-temperature of the chosen location, so is usually 7-21 degrees Celsius (45-70 degrees Fahrenheit) depending on location. Because this temperature remains constant, geothermal heat pumps perform with far greater efficiency and in a far larger range of extreme temperatures than conventional air conditioners and furnaces.”

  6. Why should we have to mention everything? There are so many things that they are looking at doing at Masdar. They list some at:
    including on page 4, municipal solid waste, and
    Ground-Sourced Heat Pumps (GSHP): Heat can be exchanged between the hot land surface and the cooler earth below ground using geothermal heat pumps. It is a simple concept with the potential to reduce electricity consumption for cooling by more than 50%. Piping to accommodate GSHP would be sunk into the spaces alongside the buildings. We would aim at an overall reduction in cooling demand of 30% using this method.

  7. Another thing I noticed in
    Masdar will be developed in phases centered on two plazas. The first stage includes construction of a 60-megawatt photovoltaic power plant that will supply electricity for constructing the rest of the city.

    I wonder, will this supply all of the electricity needed for constructing the rest of the city, or will they still need diesel generators to supply even more electricity?

    Besides electricity, how much petroleum will be used in construction, or will all the construction machines run on electricity or biofuel from the biofuel crops that they are planting to run the factories?

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