Abu Dhabi hosted its second World Future Energy Summit earlier this week, with some 16,000 business leaders, green-tech researchers and politicians bravely forgoing northern winters for the Persian Gulf state’s subtropic sun. Judging by news reports, attendees forgot the world economy is supposed to be in a panicky, keep-your-money-in-your-mattress mode, and instead engaged in a three-day fiesta of deal-making and bold renewable energy announcements. Here’s a run-down:
* The host city pledged that 7 percent of its energy would come from renewable sources by 2020, up from zero today.
* GE announced plans for its Ecomagination Centre, an R&D showcase of wind, solar, water purification, and energy efficiency technologies. It will be built in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi’s car-free, carbon-neutral metropolis powered completely by renewable energy. The capital of the United Arab Emirates used the summit to show off the $22 billion Masdar project, which is under construction.
* Hometown English-language newspaper The National framed the summit as a coming-out party for solar power, saying the industry has been growing “much faster than official institutions and the public think”:
Long dismissed as a peripheral contributor to the world’s energy matrix, technologies harnessing the sun’s energy are now benefitting from billions of dollars of investment, which has rapidly increased their efficiency and cut their costs.
That optimism doesn’t jibe with dire reports of the U.S. solar industry faltering amid the credit crisis and declining oil prices. But consider that the Emirates have the distinct advantages of year-round sun and the crazy amounts of oil money that enable underwater hotels, man-made islands and a $63,000 per capita income in Abu Dhabi. A $15 billion solar investment from the Masdar initiative won’t hurt the local industry either.
* Several news outlets noted the unlikelihood of the oil-rich emirates becoming renewable energy leaders, including Time’s Bryan Walsh, who sees it as a logical diversification strategy:
In the long term, developers of renewables know they’ll win. Climate change aside, the simple fact that energy demand will continue growing rapidly once the downturn has ended means that new supplies will be needed. And no one including oil giants of the Middle East believe that fossil fuels alone will meet that gap.
* Walsh also notes the apparently happy marriage of technology and environmentalism on display:
Masdar City and the WFES as a whole show the triumph of a kind of techno-environmentalism that would be all but unrecognizable to the crunchy nature lovers who once dominated the green movement. A walk through the summit’s cavernous exhibition area, where models push miniwind turbines, reveals booths dedicated to thin-film solar arrays, geothermal pumps and carbon-trading consultancies. There’s little about trees or wildlife, nothing about environmental sacrifice this is about the business of getting the carbon out of our energy supply as quickly as possible.
That bit about no sacrifice suggests why the summit seems to be merely a business conference, albeit a very cool one. Climate change demands a wholesale shift toward sustainable economies that most definitely must involve sacrifices and lifestyle changes, not just technological fixes. Which is too bad, because the encouraging tech news from the Gulf region has been mighty encouraging lately:
* Masdar City’s renewable-energy research center opened last year with support from M.I.T. and continues to establish itself. It should help the UAE close its R&D and human capital gap with other innovation centers.
* Last week the Times reported on a flurry of green-tech investment in the Gulf region over the last year, including a state-owned Saudi Arabian university giving $25 million to Stanford research on solar power affordability, and a $220 million investment partnership between Great Britain and Qatar. Writes Elisabeth Rosenthal: “For the rest of the world, the enormous cash infusion may provide the important boost experts say is needed to get dozens of emerging technologies like carbon capture, microsolar and low-carbon aluminum over the development hump to make them cost-effective.”
Last fall’s freezing of venture capital and every other major form of credit was especially hard on the capital-intensive renewable energy industry. It surely says something about the future of the industry that leaders in the most oil-soaked region of the world are falling over themselves to buy into it.
And the fun continues next week, when representatives from more than 100 countries plan to gather in Bonn, Germany, to form a new international agency promoting renewable energy. Reps from the U.S., China, and Japan will attend, but are not expected to immediately join the agency, according to the AFP. Still, it’ll be interesting to see what they drum up.