World’s First Solar Building Exporting Power Shelved by Abu Dhabi’s Masdar

Masdar shelved plans for the world’s first building that makes more energy than it consumes, a year after the financial crisis forced the Abu Dhabi company to step back from setting up the first carbon-neutral city.

The Abu Dhabi state-owned company said it’s evaluating a different design for its headquarters than the one selected in 2008 from Chicago-based Adrian Smith & Gordon Gill Architecture for a 100,000 square-meter (1.1 million square-foot) structure equipped with enough solar panels to cover four soccer fields.

The headquarters, planned in the capital city, “will now be built in phases, in line with market demand and economic conditions at the time,” Abu Dhabi-based Masdar said in an e- mailed response to questions. Officials declined to say whether the revised design would still allow for the headquarters to generate more power than it uses.

Masdar, promoter of the Middle East’s most ambitious plan to develop renewable energy, accepted its latest setback after the financial crisis curbed Abu Dhabi’s ambitions for its $22 billion government-funded venture. Set up in 2006, it was to build Masdar City, a carbon-neutral town in which students and companies pursued renewable energy projects.

Last year, Masdar reviewed its plans and said in October it was scaling back the zero-carbon ambition. It delayed the city’s first phase by two years to 2015.

The new headquarters, which was to have formed the centerpiece of Masdar City, will conform to “the sustainable construction practices implemented across the city,” the company said.

‘Concern About Tenants’

Gordon Gill, a partner at the firm with the winning design, had said Masdar and its parent company Mubadala Development Co. were having second thoughts.

“They built the slab in 2009, and then it went on hold,” Gill said in a Sept. 8 phone interview from Chicago. “Mubadala and Masdar are having discussions about the building itself -- either they’ve changed the budget, or the building is too big, and they are concerned about tenants. I’m expecting to hear from them within the month about whether they will go ahead.”

Architects began proposing designs in 2006, as the United Arab Emirates, holder of 7 percent of global oil reserves, took advantage of a boom in crude prices. Oil surged from an average of about $40 a barrel in 2004 to $147.27 in July 2008.

The Persian Gulf nation began developing new industries to diversify its economy. Abu Dhabi, capital of the U.A.E. and home to most of its oil, began investing in solar and wind-power projects to pioneer the use of renewable energy. By 2020, Abu Dhabi aims to generate at least 7 percent of its power needs from renewable sources.

“The building had to be ‘positive energy,’ with all power generated on site,” Gill said. “It was probably about 50 percent more expensive than our typical office building, because we had to build our own power facilities.”

Wind Cones

The headquarters as first designed was to have provided 3 percent more energy than required for its own operation, generating 5.5 gigawatt-hours of renewable energy annually, according to Masdar’s website. It was to have included 11 glass- enclosed towers, or wind cones, that would have cooled the building by drawing warm air up to the roof and expelling it.

Its architects had planned for the building to produce energy while under construction, said Emma Stewart, senior manager for sustainability at Autodesk Inc. (ADSK), which provided software for Smith & Gill’s proposal.

‘Bottom-up Building’

“They could have done a bottom-up building,” she said in a June 28 phone interview from San Francisco. “Instead, they prioritized the cones, which provide a cooling system, support the roof and shade the workers from the sun, and then planned to build around them, which is completely the opposite to how you would normally do it.”

Masdar said it was now “finalizing” a design, adding that pictures aren’t available. The building’s first phase will be ready by the fourth quarter of 2013, it said.

Masdar City currently consists of little more than student residences and a joint venture research university with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The United Arab Emirates plans to seek $100 billion in outside investment for alternative and sustainable energy projects by 2020, rather than pay for them itself.

A presentation aimed at potential investors in countries including Brazil, Argentina, South Korea, China, Japan, Italy and Spain is to begin in November, the Ministry of Economy said in July.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ayesha Daya at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Voss at

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