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Powering Down

The world’s biggest oil producers are pouring money into renewable energy. Why isn’t the United States, the world’s biggest oil consumer, following suit?


A towering goal: The Masdar solar array will help Abu Dhabi get 7 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030.(AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates—The electric cars quite literally drive themselves in Masdar City, a carbon-neutral village designed to show off the United Arab Emirates’ commitment to renewable energy. The “personal rapid transit” vehicles have glass doors that slide back with a quiet whoosh as you enter. Then they ask, in English, where you want to go. No driver required.

Emirati officials love to bring visiting politicians, business leaders, and journalists to Masdar, which the oil-rich UAE sees as a blueprint for cities of the energy-starved future. Masdar’s narrow streets are shaded by angled black solar panels that soak up the country’s unforgiving midday sun and cool the roads below. The city center has a multistory wind tower that can be used to either push hot air up and out or funnel cool breezes down through Masdar’s central plaza. The city carefully collects, filters, and reuses its water. Its solar-power systems can meet all of its energy needs while feeding excess capacity back into Abu Dhabi’s grid.


In truth, Masdar is an Emirati Epcot Center. Its technologies may never come into wide use. Just a few hundred people live here, and experts estimate that the village must have cost several billion dollars to build. (The government refuses to say.) Even the name is a bit of a misnomer: Masdar officials have ambitious plans to construct apartment buildings, roads, and offices, but most remain on the drawing board, giving the Potemkin “city” the feel of a small college campus.

But the UAE’s commitment to renewable energy is very real. Emirati leaders accept the concept of “peak oil,” in which global petroleum output will soon begin a slow decline. They believe they have between 50 and 200 more years of oil riches beneath their sands, but they recognize the inexorable trend. Renewable energy gives the country a chance to dominate new forms of power just as it currently dominates oil exports. With prices hovering above $120 per barrel, the Emirates and other Persian Gulf nations also want to use less oil and sell more. So the Gulf nations see a huge financial incentive to launch large-scale, government-funded, solar, wind, and nuclear projects that are almost unthinkable in the U.S.

Abu Dhabi, the richest of the seven Emirates, is building the region’s first civilian nuclear plants. (See “The Choice,” NJ, 2/4/12, p. 12.) It aims to get 7 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030. Neighboring Dubai is building a massive, 1-gigawatt solar array that will be the largest in the world. Officials say that renewables will account for 5 percent of Dubai’s energy needs by 2030.

Saudi Arabia plans to spend roughly $80 billion on 16 nuclear plants. By 2030, the kingdom expects renewables to fill 20 percent of its energy needs.

Like many of their neighbors, Emirati leaders are willing to splurge for those goals. Abu Dhabi has spent $20 billion on nuclear plants and billions more on Masdar City (not to mention a host of affiliated investment companies charged with funding clean-energy projects around the world). Dubai is investing $3.7 billion in the solar array and pledges more for additional plants. Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest oil producer, plans to spend roughly $80 billion in coming years on a network of 16 nuclear plants. By 2030, the kingdom expects renewables to fill 20 percent of its energy needs. Egypt and Morocco are spending billions of dollars on wind farms and solar arrays. They, like the Palestinian Authority, have established government targets for alternative-energy production.

The situation in the United States couldn’t be more different. President Obama’s ambitious plan to wean the U.S. off fossil fuel ran up against Republican opposition in Congress, solidified by the high-profile failure of solar-energy start-up Solyndra. The United States has no national clean-energy target. Last year, Obama proposed that the country aim to get 80 percent of its electricity from clean sources by 2035; a Senate bill to codify that goal has stalled. A monarchy such as the UAE can establish a goal by diktat, but in gridlocked Washington, Obama alone can’t do much to change the energy economy. The numbers tell the story. The Energy Department’s fiscal 2013 budget devotes less than $3 billion to efficiency and renewable projects. The Pentagon will spend about $841 million more. That means Dubai (population 2 million) will devote more money to renewable energy than the United States (population 350 million).

Those policies add up to two very different futures. Persian Gulf countries, which sell more oil than any other nation in the world, are preparing for the changes they’ll have to make. The United States, which buys more oil than any other nation in the world, is doing next to nothing to prepare for the decline of fossil fuels. The U.S. spent the 20th century importing oil because it failed to create any viable domestic alternatives. In the 21st century, Washington seems likely to perpetuate that mistake.


This article appears in the April 14, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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