by Marc Gunther
March 7, 2008: 8:04 AM EST
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Building the world's cleanest city

In a Persian Gulf desert, a U.S. engineering firm drives clean tech forward.

By Marc Gunther, senior writer

(Fortune) -- Halfway around the world, a zero-carbon, zero-waste, automobile-free city known as Masdar is rising from a 2.3-square mile plot of desert in Abu Dhabi.

If all goes according to plan, Masdar - financed with $15 billion in oil money - will become a showcase for smart urban planning, green building, renewable energy, sustainable materials and advanced recycling.

"There is nothing like it in the world," says Masdar CEO Sultan Al Jaber, without exaggeration. "Masdar has a simple promise - to be the world's center for future energy solutions." Should this grand experiment work, Abu Dhabi will profit from the clean energy economy of tomorrow, just as it profits from $100-a-barrel oil today.

To get from here to there, Abu Dhabi will tap into the vision of London architects Foster and Partners and the skills of a big U.S. engineering firm called CH2M Hill. Last week, I visited CH2M Hill's headquarters in Englewood, Colorado, a Denver suburb, to learn more about the project, and about the company that's been hired to make it real.

Masdar "is about a journey to zero carbon, zero waste," says Jim Otta, a senior executive with CH2M Hill. "It's like the U.S. on its quest to the moon. Nobody quite knew how to get to the moon when Kennedy announced the goal. Yet a decade later, people were walking on the moon."

So why is one of the United Arab Emirates, and not the United States, embarking on this new adventure? "I think there are two reasons why Masdar is being built in the UAE," Otta says. "First, it's an economic development project for the UAE so that their future economy will be based on sustainable energy. The second reason is vision - the Middle East is looking at the future and wanting to change the way things are done for their children. They realize this will not happen without leadership and clearly they want to be the leader."

The oil money helps, too, as does the fact that Abu Dhabi, an island emirate of fewer than 1 million people, is tightly controlled by the Al Nahyan clan, who don't need to ask permission from a local zoning board to erect a solar thermal power plant, a Jetsons-like transportation system, a college campus, office buildings or homes for 40,000 people. All that and more are part of the plans for Masdar City. Another 50,000 people will commute to work there, although they won't be driving inside the city limits.

As Glen Daigger, CH2M Hill's chief technology officer, explains, the city is inspired by ancient Arab cities and traditional European cities that are pedestrian-friendly. "The ancient cities weren't built around cars because there were no cars," he notes.

Masdar residents will have access to Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) vehicles--four-person, electric-powered, self-propelled vehicles. Travelers will go to a station, dial in their destination and be whisked away. "There isn't a system like it in the world today." Daigger says. Plans call for 83 stations, 2,500 vehicles and 150,000 trips per day.

CH2M Hill expect the cars, the buildings and everything else to be powered by solar photovoltaic panels on the rooftop of every building, solar thermal power plants (which use the sun to heat liquids that spin turbines and generate electricity) and waste-to-energy plants.

"Essentially, every city building will be its own power generator," Otta says. The electricity will power buildings, street lights, the PRT system and wastewater treatment. "The city will be the network."

Masdar is being designed as a research and technology center. The first phase, a university called the Masdar Institute that has begun to hire faculty and recruit students, is scheduled to open in the fall of 2009. Plans call for the entire city to be open by 2016. You can find out a lot more on the Masdar Web site.

None of this will be simple to execute but employee-owned CH2M Hill is no stranger to big, complex projects. The firm is managing about $14 billion worth of development projects for the 2012 London Olympics and the $6-billion expansion of the Panama Canal, among other projects. It has about 23,000 employees and brought in more than $5 billion in revenues last year.

"Our folks have a real passion for innovation, and a real passion for sustainability," Daigger says. They'll need both to make Masdar work. To top of page

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