Masdar – “the Source” in Arabic – is the Abu Dhabi Government’s multi-billion-dollar initiative to promote renewable and sustainable energy technologies, leveraging on Abu Dhabi’s substantial resources and expertise in the energy sector. Launched in 2006, the Masdar Initiative is described by Masdar as:  

“Abu Dhabi’s multi-faceted response to the need for a global focus on resource conservation and the alternative energy sector”.  

One of the key objectives is to position Abu Dhabi as a world-class research and development hub for clean energy technologies. A related objective is to drive the commercialisation and adoption of these and other technologies in sustainable energy, carbon management and water utilisation.  

To that end, the Masdar Initiative aims to provide an environment where innovative solutions to the planet’s changing energy requirements can be researched (in conjunction with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology) and one where they can be trialled (at Masdar City). In addition, various energy funds have been established, including an incubator fund to assist and promote start-up companies and entrepreneurs in growing clean and sustainable energy businesses, as well as a special projects division to develop large-scale energy and technology projects around the globe.

The project runs on an “open engagement” model, a forward-thinking way of promoting innovation and the sharing of ideas. This laudable philosophy is akin to that of Google’s groundbreaking Beta software, which allows programmers around the world to contribute and perfect its products. The idea espoused is one of companies sharing ideas to promote the development of sustainable and renewable energy for the good of the planet as a whole; whilst the reality is more likely to be very commercially driven, there is no denying that the Masdar Initiative has already brought together an impressive collection of some of the world’s best scientific and corporate resources.  

The potential benefits are huge and the initiative exemplary; not only are innovative breakthroughs explored and nurtured but, in due course, the combined in-house ability of the participating corporations means the possibility to scale up successful initiatives for global application is already in place.  

The six key components of the Masdar Initiative are set out below.

1. Masdar City

Masdar City (or the Masdar Special Free Zone, to give it its proper name), has been designed by British architects Foster & Firm, and is planned to be a 6.4 square kilometre development which will be located near Abu Dhabi International Airport. It is planned to be carbon neutral and will be powered by a combination of solar, wind and other sustainable forms of energy. In addition, Masdar City is planned to be a zero waste development utilising pioneering waste and water management systems. In addition innovative personal transport schemes are proposed the effect of which will be net zero carbon emissions from transport within its borders.

Estimates as to the cost of Masdar City range from US$15–22 billion. Final completion is scheduled within eight years, and the first phase is predicted to be delivered next year.  

2. Masdar Institute of Science and Technology

The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) is a graduate-level scientific and engineering institution operating in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It is billed as a private, not-for-profit, independent research-driven institution. The campus will be housed within Masdar City and the focus of MIST will be education and research in the fields of clean energy and sustainable technology. MIST aims to begin academic courses in September 2009.  

3. Masdar research network

The Masdar research network is an international network of research institutions conducting cutting-edge research into renewable energy. The network is comprised of various international institutions, including: Imperial College London, which, through its Energy Futures Lab, has a strong pedigree in systems design and carbon management; RWTH Aachen University, Germany, for energy and water research; the University of Waterloo, Canada, for solar, wind, and hydrogen energy through the Centre for Advanced Photovoltaic Devices and Systems and the Green Energy Research Institute; Columbia University, a leader in developing sustainable energy solutions through the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science; the German Aerospace Centre, with leading research and development programmes in concentrating solar power; and the Tokyo Institute of Technology through its advanced research on innovative solar thermal systems.  

The ambition is for MIST to become the hub of this international research activity.  

4. Special Projects Unit

This is the unit for developing large-scale capital-intensive energy and technology projects of strategic importance to Masdar and for the broader economic diversification of Abu Dhabi’s economy. The Special Projects Unit is actively “kick-starting” new industries in renewable energy via Abu Dhabi-based production ventures and international acquisitions. Priority sectors include photovoltaics, hydrogen power, energy storage and biofuels.  

5. Innovation and Investment Unit

The Innovation and Investment Unit (Innovation Unit) drives the commercialisation and adoption of advanced energy and sustainability technologies. Within the Innovation Unit there are three key elements.  

The first is the Masdar Clean Tech Fund, a US$250 million private equity fund launched in November 2006 in partnership with Credit Suisse and Consensus Business Group. The fund aims to develop a portfolio of companies with energy and sustainability technologies that are suitable for commercialisation in the United Arab Emirates.

The second is the Sustainable Technologies and Advanced Research programme, which invests in near-commercial technologies suitable for demonstration-level projects.  

The third is the Masdar Business Incubator, which assists start-ups and entrepreneurs, nurturing them into commercially viable businesses.  

6. Carbon Management Unit

Spearheading the development of carbon emissions reduction projects under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol in the MENA region, the Carbon Management Unit (CMU) is actively developing a broad portfolio of assets and carbon-related projects in oil and gas, heavy industry, renewable energy and waste management. Through its innovative carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, the CMU hopes to be able to pioneer technology allowing carbon waste to be pumped into oilfields thus simultaneously boosting production and disposing of carbon waste from the atmosphere.  

A cooperation agreement was signed during UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s recent visit to the region, pursuant to which the United Kingdom and Masdar have vowed to tap into each other’s expertise and influence, with the goal of accelerating the adoption of technologies to make renewable energy scalable and affordable to the global community.  

This government endorsement of the Masdar Initiative further builds on the credibility and prospects for what is clearly a pioneering and welcome initiative from a nation that is famous for high energy consumption.