Masdar Institute Tour: A Living Energy Efficiency Laboratory

Entering the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology is like walking into a model community showcasing renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. There are solar electric and thermal panels on the rooftops. The campus, which is designed to deflect sunlight in part to cool the buildings while also redirecting it to light up interior space, comes with building automation software and meters to monitor and control air conditioning and other energy use.

It also is very much a social experiment to see how people, the consumers, will react and cope with technologies that are designed, in many ways, to modify their behavior.

The graduate school began classes in fall 2009, but students and professors were in temporary space until they moved into the spiffy new digs last September. The campus, covering 67,000 square meters, is the first set of buildings for Masdar City, the much touted zero-carbon metropolis that Abu Dhabi government intends to plant in the desert. When completed, the entire city should take up 6 square kilometers and house hundreds of companies and about 40,000 residents.

I joined a media tour of the institute Tuesday, during the week of the World Future Energy Summit. The summit is the fourth annual conference held by Masdar, the cleantech development company of the Abu Dhabi government (disclosure: Abu Dhabi government paid for my trip). The trip offered a closer view of Abu Dhabi’s effort to transform itself from a fossil fuel-dependent economy to a diversified one that counts renewable energy as a key component. Since the government announced its foray into renewable energy through Masdar in 2006, it has run into setbacks, modified plans and learned some valuable lessons along the way. I’ll discuss these in a separate article.

Masdar holds up the institute as a success, an example of what the government envisions as its role in the world stage. The school, developed with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is tasked with producing research and talents in energy and sustainability technologies. The government wants the research to become commercially-viable technologies that will be tested and deployed in Masdar City and sold globally. Tuition and housing is free to its students, though officials declined to say how much it costs to educate each student or run the school annually.

“The transformation of economy from a natural resource-based to knowledge-based is something many countries try to adopt. In Abu Dhabi not only has to have a knowledge-based economy but a ‘green’ based economy,” said Fred Moavenzadeh, the institute’s president, during a press event. He is on leave from MIT, where he taught civil and environmental engineering. “The part that the Masdar Institute is involved in is human capital development and R&D capacity.”

The campus, which is due to expand, has six buildings and is home to nearly 170 students and 38 professors. Introduction to the campus began with a ride on what’s called “Personal Rapid Transit,” a fleet of driverless pods powered by onboard batteries.  The pods move along tracks guided by embedded magnets in the ground. (see Pod image, below) It’s a 2-minute, 800-meter ride to go from the station next to a parking lot to the station at the campus. Or you can take a bit more time to walk (when the weather is mild; it can get really hot here), and the distance is only 250 meters.

The PRT is a pilot project to see whether it would be a good fit for the rest of Masdar City. City planners initially thought PRT pods would zip all over the city below a raised street level, but they aren’t keen on the idea anymore. The rise of electric vehicles, including buses, in recent years has prompted Masdar officials to reconsider what elements to include in the mass transit system. They talked about building a light rail system before as a primary means to move lots of people around. Each pod, by comparison, can only seat four people.  

Staying cool under hot desert sun is a primary goal of the city designers, and you see that everywhere at the institute. The campus itself serves up novel designs, from insulated facades to lattice windows, to provide better ventilation and shading among the buildings and in the quad areas, according to its designer, architecture firm Foster + Partners. The façade for the lab building, for example, contains what the architects say are “inflatable cushions” made with a polymer that can “filter and reflect light into the street, without radiating heat.” Fountains and landscaping also help to keep the place cool.

Solar thermal and photovoltaic panels on top of the buildings can provide most of the hot water and around 30-35 percent of the electricity needs of the campus, said Martyn Potter, director of operations and facilities at the institute, during the tour. The 1-MW solar system with panels from SunPower aren’t generating electricity yet. They will be when they are connected connected to the grid, which should happen “soon,” said Afshin Afshari, an energy manager with Masdar City.

The rest of the institute’s electricity supply comes from a 10-MW photovoltaic system that came online in mid-2009. Half of the solar panels came from First Solar and half are from Suntech Power. The system is on land set aside for Masdar City, but not next to the institute.

The campus includes 120 apartments for student housing, a lab building, classrooms, library, a café, canteen and sushi restaurant. The air conditioning units are set to operate around 24 degrees Celsius (plus or minus 2 degrees) when people are inside and 28 degrees Celsius when they are out, Potter said. Yes, people have complained about the temperature settings, but they just have to deal, he added.

The school has erected a 45-meter wind tower that sits in a breezy part of the campus. It captures the wind and disperses it along with a mist of water to cool the surrounding area. The instrument is still under testing and will be automated, Potter said. The wind tower should lower the perceived temperature by about 6 degrees Celsius (it may do as much as 10 degrees Celsius).

A string of LED lights along one of the three legs of the wind tower serves a signal system for telling the students and professors whether they are reaching their energy efficiency goals. The campus is supposed to operate 50 percent more efficiently (in terms of energy use) than comparable buildings in Abu Dhabi – that includes savings in electricity, water and heating, Potter said. Meters and software monitor energy use throughout the campus. When the wind tower becomes automated, the lights will turn green when the efficiency goal is reached. When they turn red, then Potter will have to figure out who or what facilities are using too much energy. The system reminds the campus denizens of their energy saving goals and their role in an institution that aims to develop energy efficient technologies.

“That’s my guilt trip – if (the system) turns red, then everyone is failing together,” Potter said.


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Ucilia Wang is a California-based freelance journalist who writes about renewable energy. She previously was the associate editor at Greentech Media and a staff writer covering the semiconductor industry at Red Herring. In addition to Renewable Energy World, she writes for Earth2tech/GigaOm, Forbes,Technology Review (MIT) and PV Magazine. You can reach her at Follow her on Twitter: @UciliaWang

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