x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Flying the flag for clean energy

Ten years ago, Yuka Fukuhara and her mother drove a 4x4 through Abu Dhabi, marvelling at the traditional souq and roads covered by sand and dust. They were Japanese tourists, and the UAE was a curiosity.

Yuka Fukuhara, a manager at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, says ‘doing business with Masdar is very important for us. They like state-of-the-art technology’. Christopher Pike / The National
Yuka Fukuhara, a manager at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, says ‘doing business with Masdar is very important for us. They like state-of-the-art technology’. Christopher Pike / The National

Ten years ago, Yuka Fukuhara and her mother drove a 4x4 through Abu Dhabi, marvelling at the traditional souq and roads covered by sand and dust. They were Japanese tourists, and the UAE was a curiosity.

This year Ms Fukuhara came back to the emirate for the first time since then and found a far different place - where a gleaming exhibition centre stands at the base of a futuristic leaning tower, looking like giant chess pieces in a landscape that just a decade ago was empty desert.

"So much has changed, I feel," said Ms Fukuhara, extracting a Louis Vuitton Murakami business card holder from the folds of her purple silk kimono. "The city is developing now."

Ms Fukuhara, a manager with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, was in town to pitch a slate of futuristic ideas such as fuel-efficient aircraft and electric cars that can recharge in half an hour. Her presence at the emirate's World Future Energy Summit - along with 650 other international companies including a Swiss chocolatier and a Serbian insurance provider on the exhibition floor - is one way of measuring Abu Dhabi's status in the contest for clean energy prominence.

Since starting in 2008, the conference has grown to attract the UN secretary general, the Chinese premier and an array of royalty, ministers and chief executives. Oil barons hold meetings in softly lit rooms, a nuclear physicist explains the workings of fuel rods and the world's first solar-power boat is docked nearby.

Much of the interest in the emirate is generated by Masdar, the clean energy company created by the Abu Dhabi Government in 2006. "Masdar is very important for us. So doing business with Masdar is very important for us. Masdar - they like state-of-the-art technology," said Ms Fukuhara.

Masdar is one of many ventures Abu Dhabi has invested in to amplify its voice on the global energy stage. The capital gained additional environmental credentials in 2009 when it won the right to host the headquarters of the UN's International Renewable Energy Agency.

Jean-Pascal Tricoire, the chief executive of Schneider Electric, began coming to the region two decades ago.

"Would I have envisioned that a place like Abu Dhabi would have carried the flag of sustainable development?" he said. "Certainly not."

Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, the president of Iceland, recalled a time before Masdar was launched when "very few people believed" Abu Dhabi could carve out a niche in clean energy.

"What has happened in the five years since this was launched is, I think, one of the most significant and comprehensive transformations that the world has seen in the whole global debate about the future," Mr Grimsson said.

"But it also carries with it an enormous responsibility for Abu Dhabi. Because now people like myself and all the other prime ministers, from China, the secretary general of the United Nations, 650 companies at this exhibition - they are now all saying to Abu Dhabi we are willing to cooperate with you on this vision, and very few countries in the world get such an opportunity."

One concern among executives is a slowdown in the emirate's pace of spending. As Abu Dhabi's first large-scale renewable generation plant - a concentrated solar plant called Shams I - nears completion, Masdar announced it had cut 9 per cent of its staff, having already scaled back plans for a city that was originally billed as a central plank in the Masdar dream. Plans for a state-of-the-art hydrogen power plant, a 500km pipeline network for captured greenhouse gases and a solar panel plant in Abu Dhabi have also been delayed.

But back at the Mitsubishi stand, the mood was optimistic. Masdar is using 11 of its electric vehicles, and Ms Fukuhara hoped to pitch more products. .

"I feel UAE is a very rich country … There are many big and beautiful buildings like Adnec. Now almost everything is paved," she said, referring to how she would describe the changes to her mother.

She put her finger to a touchscreen display as large as a dinner table, zooming in on an artist's illustration of a city with blocks of houses and wind turbines on the coast.

"I want to tell her that this place, Abu Dhabi, is developing."

 

ayee@thenational.ae