Standing outside his new home, Karam Hamadeh is a happy man.

His house is on the outskirts of Dubai in what is expected to become the city’s first carbon-neutral development. It uses energy-efficient building techniques and thousands of solar panels generate most of its electricity.

“When I first visited I fell in love with it,” says Hamadeh, a manager for a doors and windows manufacturing company, who lives with his wife Hiam and their two-year-old daughter. “It really makes you think about energy use.”

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and across the region, rapid economic development has led to soaring electricity consumption and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. As a result, the UAE’s carbon emissions per person are nearly three times the level of the UK, for example.

The creation of Sustainable City – in a region which has supplied much of the crude oil to fuel the global economy – reflects growing local recognition of the need to tackle high emissions that contribute to climate change. It is also part of a global trend towards building small-scale developments aimed at making urban living more sustainable.

Investing in a renewable future

In January 2017, the UAE, a major oil producer, said it plans to invest $160 billion in projects to meet over half of its power needs with renewable energy. And one of the world’s largest oil producers, Saudi Arabia, has earmarked $50 billion for renewables projects to diversify its energy mix.

The use of solar panels in UAE homes is rare, despite abundant sunshine. But with momentum building, the company behind Sustainable City, Dubai-based Diamond Developers, hopes it will become a blueprint for other residential ventures.

A tour through Hamadeh’s house reveals well-insulated walls and windows to help keep the inside cool. Energy-efficient LED lighting, an advanced air conditioning system and efficient kitchen appliances are powered with the help of 20 solar panels on the roof. There is also a separate solar water heater.

The panels generate around 40% of the dwelling’s electricity during the sweltering summer months, when demand for electricity to power air conditioning is high. In winter, when air conditioning is not needed, they provide up to 90% of the building’s electricity.

The rest comes from the grid which today derives 98% of its electricity from gas-fired power stations. To help meet demand, Dubai imports some gas in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG), with Shell a key supplier.

Sustainable City currently has no capacity to store the solar power it generates. Instead residents will sell surplus power to the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, helping them to save on utility bills.

“We’re used to utilities providing a service to us but now we’re beginning to provide a service back,” says Karim El Jisr, Director of Research and Development at Diamond Developers. “That means a private development like ours can become an electricity generation unit.” 

There are plans to build a school and a hotel.

Officials from several government departments have toured the development, including delegates from Expo 2020, a multi-billion dollar city exhibition to be held in Dubai which will focus on sustainability and future mobility.

Dubai’s government is overseeing the building of a major new suburb, called Dubai South, to stage the event. Officials want it to be 50% energy self-sufficient through the use of solar power and energy-efficiency measures.

In contrast, Sustainable City is a commercial project and one which will chart a path for future developments, according to Adnan Z. Amin, the Director General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental body.

“Sustainable City demonstrates a business case for deploying renewable energy in housing in the region,” he says. “The use of smart grids and energy management in developments of this kind really is a signpost to the future.”


By Marcus George

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