Home' Technology Review : March April 2009 Contents FEATURE STORY 63
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THE TEST BED
Sameer Abu-Zaid isn't breaking a sweat. It's 39 °C with 74 percent
humidity, but he says it's a nice day---much cooler than the sum-
mer in Abu Dhabi, when temperatures can reach 49 °C. Abu-Zaid,
who's originally from Jordan and was most recently a manager at
a semiconductor equipment manufacturer in Silicon Valley, will
manage Masdar City's power and distribution infrastructure. "All
of these modules have been tested at the factories," he says as he
gives a tour of one of the first visible signs of the city, a test site
where he's putting 41 arrays of solar panels from various manu-
facturers through their paces. "But they have been tested under
standard test conditions: 1,000 watts per meter squared, 25 °C.
Nice air-conditioned space. It is totally di erent here."
Dust from the desert quickly coats the panels, e ectively dim-
ming the light that reaches them. Abu-Zaid has learned that just
four months of dust reduces the output of the solar arrays by more
than 20 percent---information he'll use to decide how often to wash
the panels, balancing power loss against water consumption.
Another problem is the heat. Solar panels' dark surfaces absorb
sunlight, raising their temperature to as much as 80 °C. The heat
a ects some solar-cell technologies more than others. Some of
the most e cient solar panels also produce less power when they
get hot. Because of these trade-o s, it's not obvious which panels
will work best at the Masdar site, Abu-Zaid says. At the test plot,
sensors track how much various panels heat up, how e ective dif-
ferent cooling strategies are, and how power output changes with
temperature, among other factors.
Such data gathering will continue as the city grows. Its designers
and engineers will measure both energy consumption and energy
production. They will track water consumption down to the indi-
vidual fixture. At Masdar headquarters, designers may use RFID
tags in security badges to gather information on the way people
use water and energy. Such measurements will allow designers
and engineers to compare the real performance of the city with the
performance predicted by laboratory tests and simulations.
In the early 1960s, while the United States was rushing to put a
man on the moon, electric fans and lights were still unheard-of
in Abu Dhabi, according to Mohammed Al Fahim, a native of the
emirate who has written a rare history of the place. That was not
long after oil was discovered there, and well before the money
started flowing. Al Fahim is from one of the wealthiest families
in the area, yet both his sister and later his mother died because
of a lack of basic health care. Now life expectancy in Abu Dhabi
is virtually the same as in the United States. Before, the locals sur-
vived on water from brackish wells; now they drink fresh water
from new desalination plants. The fragile and highly flammable
palm-frond huts that housed most people have been replaced by
gleaming glass-and-steel skyscrapers.
In many ways, the development of Abu Dhabi over the last few
decades has reflected a frenetic e ort to catch up with the devel-
oped world. Now, because of projects such as Masdar City, the
emirate has a chance to race ahead. But in terms of urban devel-
opment, it appears to be very much at a crossroads. In a few years,
while the citizens of Masdar City will be pinching kilowatt-hours
and using waterless urinals, go-carts will be screaming around a
new track at a Ferrari theme park nearby, kids will be shrieking
as they plummet down water slides at a new water park, and mas-
sive air conditioners will be roaring as they cool a new 700-store
supermall. It's all part of a 2,500-hectare development that will
dwarf the 640-hectare Masdar City.
The two developments are competing visions for the future of
Abu Dhabi. If the Masdar project doesn't justify itself financially,
it could indeed be just a green playground for the rich, an environ-
mental theme park that is largely irrelevant for the development
of sustainable technology on a broader scale. But if it is profitable,
it could be a driving force for sustainable urban design. Then the
oil-rich developers in the UAE and elsewhere might have a reason
to build more green cities and skip constructing another ski slope
in the desert. And developers worldwide will follow.
KEVIN BULLIS IS TECHNOLOGY REVIEW'S ENERGY EDITOR.
SHADY LANE Solar panels on the roofs provide sun protection in public
spaces between buildings.
©ADRIAN SMITH + GORDON GILL ARCHITECTURE
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