Canadians’ help sought for a green desert oasis

September 21, 2009
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The first city in the world likely to emit zero carbon and generate zero waste is, ironically, likely going to be in a country that gets most of its revenues from the sale of oil and gas.

Three years ago Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, came up with a grand plan. The country is rolling in petrodollars, which make up more than two-thirds of its gross domestic product. So it decided it would commit $22 billion (U.S.) toward an ambitious effort to diversify the economy, by building a green city from scratch in the middle of the desert.

Masdar City, as it’s called, will be small at about six square kilometres, and only 50,000 or so people are expected to live within its perimeter wall. But it has big vision. It will have its own university, and will be the headquarters to the newly created International Renewable Energy Agency (which Canada, by the way, refuses to join).

Masdar will also be a cleantech mecca.

The city will be powered largely by solar, wind and geothermal power, starting with a 50-megawatt solar power plant that will supply energy for construction.

A wind farm will be built outside the city’s walls and eventually, as buildings emerge, they will have solar panels on their rooftops. Some of this renewable power will be used to generate and store hydrogen, which will be used as an emission-free fuel for what’s expected to be the world’s largest hydrogen power plant.

Solar will power a desalination plant that will turn salt water into drinking water, which will be recycled where possible or used as grey water for irrigating crops or flushing toilets.

High-tech incineration technologies will be used to turn waste into energy.

Vehicles will also be banned within city walls. Instead, residents and workers will have to rely on light-rail transit and electric-powered personal transportation systems, those driverless pods you see in sci-fi movies like Blade Runner, Minority Report and – I’m aging myself now – Logan’s Run.

The entire construction effort is being overseen by Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, and the first neighbourhood in Masdar is expected to be finished in 2013.

And you thought Bramalea was a planned city.

Why bring up something happening more than 10,000 kilometres away?

Last week a delegation of Masdar City executives flew into Toronto at the invitation of Sandra Pupatello, Ontario’s minister of economic development and trade. They spent two days meeting clean technology, engineering and urban design companies from Ontario and the rest of Canada.

Dr. Nawal Al-Hosany, associate director of sustainability at Masdar City, said in an interview that Masdar needs access to the latest technologies if it is to achieve its mission. That won’t come from Abu Dhabi alone.

“This is why we seek partnerships,” she said. “We’re looking at opportunities to investigate what’s happening everywhere in the world.

“We believe there are lots of opportunities in Canada.”

She called the meetings “fruitful,” and said she expects there will be some serious business relationships formed.

“You have four senior members of Masdar here, so we’re definitely not here to waste the company’s money.”

Masdar, it should be clear, isn’t just a grand idea on paper. Construction has already started. In June, Abu Dhabi-based Enviromena Power Systems completed a 10-megawatt solar power farm that spans 22 hectares and consists of 87,777 solar photovoltaic modules. So far it takes the prize as the largest solar power plant in the Middle East and North Africa.

Last year, Burnaby, B.C.-based solar lighting company Carmanah Technologies signed a deal that will see Enviromena distribute its products throughout the Middle East, so already the Masdar initiative is having an impact on Canadian companies.

“Masdar is really seen as a test bed for these technologies,” said Kevin Healy, who heads up marketing for Masdar City.

Joseph Dableh, president and chief executive of Oakville-based intelligent lighting company Fifth Light Technology, attended one of the sessions with Al-Hosany and her team and managed to make an impression.

Fifth Light has developed technology that allows fluorescent lighting in buildings to be dimmed in a way that saves energy, extends the life of the lights, and in a way that’s hardly noticeable to the naked eye.

Masdar, said Dableh, is a perfect match for his technology.

“They have expressed serious interest and clearly stated that this is exactly what they are hoping to acquire. I had three one-to-one meetings with them and it was agreed to follow up.”

It’s great news for a promising Canadian company, even if it takes going to a desert in the Middle East for some well-deserved exposure.