Tomorrow, delegates at the International Renewable Energy Agency will vote on where to locate their new headquarters. Only Masdar City offers an integrated solution for the future of renewable energy.
Abu Dhabi for a greener Irena
The capital of a country that uses more resources per head than almost any other may not, on the face of it, be the most obvious place for the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) to set up shop. But experts say that when it comes to tomorrow's vote in Sharm el Sheikh for the location of the Irena headquarters, that very counterintuitiveness could be Abu Dhabi's strongest card. The centre - which would be the first global agency to base itself in the Middle East - could be exactly the spur the UAE needs to curb its wasteful ways. Abu Dhabi's strongest rival to host the 114-nation group is Bonn, the former capital of West Germany and the site of the signing of Irena's founding treaty earlier this year. And while the Germans are already unquestioned leaders in renewable energy - they generate more than 15 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources - that leading position brings into question what would be gained by siting Irena in Germany. As Taha al Douri, the UAE chairman for the New York Institute of Technology and an expert on architecture and urban development, said: "How useful could that organisation be if it were situated in Bonn? It's better to be somewhere where there is still plenty to be done." By contrast, basing the organisation in a developing country that is an oil exporter "makes total sense", according to Manuel Pinho, the Portuguese minister for economy and innovation, since it will serve as an example of how to extend green development beyond the borders of Europe. That example is beginning to take shape. Construction on Masdar City, the Dh81 billion (US$22bn) carbon-neutral development at the edge of the capital where Irena would be given rent-free offices, has already started. A 10-megawatt solar photovoltaic plant was recently connected to the grid. The building designated as Irena's headquarters - which, according to Dr Sultan al Jaber, the chief executive of Masdar, is "already under way" - will produce more electricity from its solar panels than it uses. The architects say it will be the most efficient office building in a hot and humid climate, and will even use the heat of the sun to help power the air-conditioning system. Officials say Masdar City would be the perfect setting for Irena, since it would offer a completely integrated example for the future of renewable energy. Energy-efficient buildings will be bunched close together and connected by small electric-powered vehicles. Much of the energy will come from solar panels that cover building roofs, while the quantity of water usage and waste production will be a fraction of what they currently are in any other Gulf city. About 40,000 people will live in the city and 50,000 more will work there. Irena representatives would presumably live there, too - and could be expected to keep a watchful eye on the progress of the developments around them. Among those staff would be some of the foremost minds in renewable energy, able to act as a megaphone for every success. The flip-side would be that the agency would also be there to criticise any mistakes at Masdar. The Government has put its all behind the Irena bid. It has vowed to support all administrative aspects of the agency, right down to the furniture and visa fees for its staff. It will also commit Dh183 million annually in loans over seven years to support Irena projects in developing countries, and offer 20 scholarships to the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology for students chosen by the agency. And for this, it hopes to push Abu Dhabi a little further out on to the world stage, as the first city in a developing country to host the headquarters of an international agency - and particularly one with such a pivotal role in the coming decades. "It positions Abu Dhabi on a global scale," said Dr al Jaber. "The bid has received a lot of attention and support from member countries." Beyond boosting the country in its aim of being recognised as a progressive state that is tied in to the international community and planning for its post-oil future, success could have more far-reaching effects for the development of the whole capital. As an international city that already boasts artists and academics from every corner of the world, and will do so still more as the redevelopment of Saadiyat Island nears completion, the presence of an agency devoted to renewables in an oil exporter would simply be one more idiosyncrasy, said Mr al Douri. He characterised the city's landscape as one created by a culture of tolerance, symbolised by examples as diverse as the city's open residential blocks and the competing, almost clashing, designs for museums on Saadiyat Island. "In its vision for itself, Abu Dhabi cannot be but part of the international context," he said. "There's very little discord, there's little that can be excluded in the scheme." email@example.com * With additional reporting by Vesela Todorova