UAE buildings have often been built more with aesthetics and cost in mind than anything else. Energy efficiency has often not been an important consideration.
Making the UAE a model for the efficient use of energy
UAE buildings have often been built more with aesthetics and cost in mind than anything else. The structure is meant to be functional, affordable and attractive. Energy efficiency has often not been an important consideration.
It should be. About 60 per cent of the energy used by the UAE goes on air conditioning. And because efficiency has often been overlooked, this figure - and the cost it represents - is much higher than it need be.
Recognising this problem, Abu Dhabi's Executive Affairs Authority has teamed up with the Masdar Institute for a unique study of the energy efficiency of the emirate's buildings.
It aims to characterise the buildings' performance and to estimate how much difference planned future improvements ("retrofits") will make.
In parallel to the traditional sampling approach - where a small number of statistically representative buildings are selected and monitored over a number of years - we are hoping to achieve faster, cheaper and possibly more accurate results using computer modelling. We have taken on the challenging and unprecedented task of building an energy demand model of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.
Using government data on the Emirate's overall energy-consumption behaviour, we can develop a predictive model based on certain structural parameters that represent buildings' overall energy performance.
By tweaking those parameters we can predict the energy impact of planned retrofits, and ultimately select those that are most cost-effective.
Preliminary results have shown that simple retrofits to existing buildings can bring significant savings. Proper AC maintenance, for instance, is one of the most effective retrofits.
Structural retrofits can bring about further improvements, although they are typically more intrusive and costly.
Many buildings in the UAE are leaky and have little or no thermal insulation. Most windows are single-glazed and lack proper solar shading. Adding insulation to the inner side of external walls, reducing air leakage and upgrading the windows can address this inefficiency.
And it's well worth it. First, there is the obvious shared issue of global climate change exacerbated by power plants that run on fossil fuels. Second, electricity in the UAE is subsidised - and therefore so is our carefree use of it.
Additionally, the Emirate's electricity generation plants rely almost exclusively on imported natural gas. Excessive reliance on imported fuel to meet energy demand is costly and reduces independence.
And lastly, the double-digit annual increase in energy demand. Unless that increase is checked, it may not be possible to generate enough extra electricity to meet it.
A systematic energy efficiency policy is required to keep demand in check.
This project and others will be able to show us how to reduce our buildings' electricity consumption in a realistic and cost-effective way.
Dr Afshin Afshari is professor of practice in engineering systems and management at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.