How India and Abu Dhabi are becoming smarter destinations

Masdar City broke ground in 2008 and embarked on becoming the world’s most sustainable eco-city.

The list of destinations adopting a “smart” approach is quickly growing in both well-developed and emerging-market cities. One well-developed city, which emerged over the past decade as an international destination is Abu Dhabi and its Masdar City, which broke ground in 2008 and embarked on becoming the world’s most sustainable eco-city.

Masdar City claims to be the world’s smartest, lowest carbon-using, most sustainable “eco-neighborhood.” The city is tackling sustainability in every dimension, especially with energy use, which could offer best-practice models for destinations around the world. With the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency, Siemens Middle East and the MIT-affiliated Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, based in Masdar City, it is well positioned for continued sustainability advances. 

Many of the energy-efficient technologies and practices that have been implemented offer useful best practices for other destinations.

But it isn't there yet. “Masdar City is nowhere close to zeroing out its greenhouse gas emissions now, even at a fraction of its planned footprint,” Suzanne Goldberg, the Guardian’s US Environment reporter, said in a 2016 article. “And it will not reach that goal even if the development ever gets fully built, the authorities admitted.”

Chris Wan, the design manager for Masdar City, said that the design team was not going to try “shoehorning” renewable energy into the project “just to justify a definition created within a boundary...As of today, it’s not a net-zero future. It’s about 50 percent.”

But, as Wan emphasized later in the article, Masdar was not a total failure. “[It] is part of an evolutionary process.”

There are two important “lessons” here. The first is that 50 percent is certainly much better than nothing. The city is aiming for a “moonshot” of an environmental goal and are not quite there yet. In this writer’s opinion, that is still worth encouraging because, as Wan rightfully states, it is an evolutionary process. The second point is that they are not going to “shoehorn” or force energy solutions that perhaps market demand does not quite support yet. 

Some of the measures that are moving Masdar towards the goal include:

  • The city’s main buildings produce three-quarters of their hot water using solar energy. 
  • All buildings are constructed with low-carbon cement and 90 percent recycled aluminum. 
  • Intelligent building design combined with traditional Arab architecture has helped reduce energy costs by at least 60 percent. 
  • Energy-efficient transportation such as electric cars, electric buses, and other clean energy vehicles.
  • A 100 kW thermal power plant, solar cooling and geothermal cooling. 
  • Shams 1, a standalone 2.5km², 100 MW concentrated solar power plant, the largest such plant in the world, which displaces annually 175,000 tonnes of CO₂, which is equal to the emissions of 29,000 households. 
  • A 10-megawatt PV solar field, the largest in the Middle East, that produces more energy than needed by the city with the excess diverted to Abu Dhabi’s power grid. 
  • A prototype eco-villa has recently been completed, which will use 72-percent less energy and 35-percent less water than other comparatively sized villas in Abu Dhabi as well as displace 63 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. 

Masdar is supported by the deep pockets of the Abu Dhabi-based Mubadala Investment Company, which manages an investment portfolio worth more than $63 billion. Masdar does not yet have any hotels, but it does have 11 restaurants and cafes. These are required to comply with Masdar’s environmental standards. 

India Emerges

In emerging markets, India stands out for its national “Smart Cities Mission,” which initially targets 20 cities for implementing “smart solutions” to improve conditions for residents, visitors and businesses.

The country's program is now one of the leading examples for the rest of the world. The Indian Government has similar aspirations to those of Masdar in terms of creating some of the lowest carbon emissions and most sustainable cities possible.

Among the energy efficient measures their program is supporting include:

  • Smart metering for water and electricity utilities 
  • LED street lighting
  • Solar power capacity implementation
  • Intelligent solar powered lights
  • Smart grid and energy management
  • A public sector enterprise, the Energy Efficiency Services Limited, has been tasked by  government to help implement some of the program, especially public lighting. Some of the improvements that are being pursued include: 
  • Installation of smart LED lights in many of  the 110 urban districts of the state of Andhra Pradesh, Bhubaneswar, Karnataka and Uttar Pradresh (home of Taj Mahal), which hosts 15 smart cities.
  • Providing energy-efficient ceiling fans in Bhubaneswar.
  • Energy-efficient measures in Karnataka, which has nine smart cities, have led to daily energy savings of 17 million kWh as well as daily reductions in CO2 emissions of 1,440 tonnes. 
  • In Ujain, a solar power unit is being built for the Mahakaleshwar Temple and will save almost $6,000 a year in electricity bills.

While the Indian Government’s Smart Cities program is encouraging state and municipal governments across the country to adopt and implement these various energy efficiency measures and technologies, the private sector is a critical partner for successful implementation. ITC, a leading Indian company, is one such private sector partner, particularly as demonstrated through their hotel division. 

Dawn Drew, an advisor to the hotel division and president of New York-based M.O.S.T.E., said that "private-sector partners enter into a city and round out the tourism infrastructure.”  She explained that “visitors certainly want a clean, connected and efficient city—but to build a sustainable travel center, there must be smart partnering in hospitality, transportation, restaurants and other services that attract travelers to a destination.” 

To optimize these partnerships and contribute towards India’s national goals on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, ITC has adopted a strategy for their hotels and other businesses that includes the following:

  • Adopting a low-carbon growth path
  • Goal of 50-percent renewable energy share by 2020
  • Energy conservation through audits, benchmarking and targets of reducing energy consumption
  • Investment in renewable energy assets 
  • Continuous monitoring and review of performance
  • Accounting of energy footprint along the value chain
  • Engagement with supply chain members for responsible sourcing 
  • Reduction of energy consumption

As evidenced by India's efforts, a smart cities agenda can be a catalyst for leadership on sustainability and helping to shape intelligent partnerships between government and private-sector partners. The smart city approach uses technology to provide each of these solutions throughout every part of the city. For the visitor, resident, business owner and investor, the result is a destination that is greener and cleaner and thus a healthier and higher quality place to visit, live and do business in.