By Molly Brennan, Contributing Editor and Katie Kervin, Assistant Editor
Convene went overseas to explore the mysteries of two international scientific meetings: What is an oil-rich destination like Abu Dhabi doing hosting the World Future Energy Summit? And why did Singapore decide to create the Global Young Scientists Summit?
Big Oil Goes Green
World Future Energy Summit 2013, Abu Dhabi, Jan. 15-17
By Molly Brennan, Contributing Editor
Abu Dhabi, one of the seven semiautonomous emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as well as the UAE's capital, is a place of contrasts. Soaring skyscrapers dominate its skyline, yet Bedouin traditions are strongly evident. A glitzy Formula 1 racetrack entertains spectators on one side of the city, while dusty camel racing takes place on another. And although Abu Dhabi is one of the world's leading oil producers, it is also a hub for the renewable-energy industry. Indeed, every year the city hosts the foremost international meeting dedicated to renewable energies.
Each January, policy makers, industry leaders, engineers, entrepreneurs, investors, environmentalists, and media from around the globe gather in Abu Dhabi — atop one of the world's deepest reserves of oil and natural gas — for the World Future Energy Summit (WFES). The meeting provides a high-profile forum to discuss renewable-energy policies and showcase the latest sustainable technology and solutions. Since launching five years ago, WFES has become a must-attend event for the renewable-energy industry; this year the show drew nearly 30,000 attendees and saw 70 product launches. “It's the premier event in the region,” said Benjamin Yu, business development director at Wuxi, China- based Suntech, the world's largest producer of solar panels, “and that's why we're here every year.”
Convene was there this year as well, at the invitation of the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company, whose Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC) hosted WFES 2013, to experience the increasingly influential show and see exactly how big oil goes green.
Save Yourself, Save The Planet
Abu Dhabi, which pumps out nearly 3 million barrels of oil a day, may seem like a surprising player in the renewableenergy arena. But the emirate has invested heavily in nuclear- and renewable-energy alternatives, and is working to position itself as a leader in clean technology. “The world must work together to address energy and water access, food security, and tackle the consequences of climate change,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, said via translator during WFES 2013's opening ceremony. “The United Arab Emirates is committed to face this challenge and is pushing forward to accelerate clean energy and adopt sustainable development.”
The UAE's motivation may be as much about itself as saving the planet. Its oil reserves are expected to run out sometime in the next hundred years (Abu Dhabi's sooner than that), and the government wants to be relevant in a greener future. “Delivering the world with important supplies of hydrocarbons for almost half a century,” Sheikh Mohammed told the 3,500 delegates gathered for the opening ceremony, “it's natural for the UAE to invest and play an active role in diversifying the energy mix to include renewable sources of energy.”
In fact, over the past decade, Abu Dhabi has invested billions into renewable-energy projects. The emirate's greenenergy investments are organized under the umbrella of the Masdar Initiative, a multifaceted effort intended to diversify the Abu Dhabi economy and provide long-term job creation for its growing population. As part of the initiative, the government established the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, known as Masdar; in 2008, Masdar hosted the first WFES.
WFES 2008 was a mostly regional, 5,000-attendee event. “When we started, it was like, are you guys serious about this?” said Rashed Obaid Al Dhaheri, head of special projects for Masdar, acknowledging that some people questioned the legitimacy of a renewable-energy event hosted by and held in an oil-rich capital. But Masdar made international headlines at that first show by announcing major investments in local and international wind-, solar-, and other clean-energy projects. The following year, Abu Dhabi won its bid to host the permanent headquarters for the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), pledging $50 million in annual loans to finance renewable-energy projects in developing countries.
‘The Time Is Here. The Time Is Now.’
While WFES has grown every year since its inception, this year's show announced Abu Dhabi's arrival on the green scene in a big way. WFES 2013 was held under the umbrella of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week — five days and six events dedicated to renewable energy, including the International Water Summit (IWS), which co-located with WFES. Over the course of three days, WFES and IWS drew 29,448 attendees from 155 countries to ADNEC — a 37-percent increase in foreign participation.
French President Francois Hollande
WFES's rising prominence was evidenced by the many foreign dignitaries and high-ranking policymakers in attendance. The first day's opening ceremony was attended by the prime minister and vice president of the UAE, along with 91 official delegations from across the globe. In addition to Sheikh Mohammed's keynote speech, there were remarks by French President Francois Hollande, Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and Jordan's Queen Rania — all calling for increased cooperation among nations and deeper investment in renewable energy. “If we don't act, we can be sure we will have a catastrophe very soon,” Hollande said. “We are sharing the same preoccupations, but we also need to share the same ambitions. We shouldn't waste time anymore. We should act, gather together, and gather our forces and resources.”
“This is our opportunity to work together,” said Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of Masdar, “to commit to real action, to innovate and strike a balance crucial to building a sustainable future. The time is here. The time is now.”
Oil, Oil Everywhere
Once the opening ceremony was finished, the exhibit hall took center stage. (The conference began on day two.) In the show's vast, 130,000-square-foot space, 650 exhibitors from 40 countries showcased the latest in solar and wind energy, desalination pumps, smart grids, waste and water management, energy storage, clean technology, and energy-efficient innovations.
‘The world must work together to address energy and water access, food security, and the consequences of climate change.’
Amid this sea of green suppliers and vendors stood big oil, on very big display. The largest and most elaborate booths on the convention floor belonged to the world's leading oil companies, including the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Shell, ExxonMobil, and the French giant Total — all of them platinum sponsors of WFES 2013. The oil companies’ booths highlighted their own efforts to be more energy efficient as well as their investments in sustainable practices and projects.
Masdar and Total, for example, have partnered to build one of the world's largest concentrated solar-power plants. Located in the western region of Abu Dhabi, the Shams-1 plant is the first of its kind in the Middle East and eventually will generate enough power for 20,000 homes. A model of Shams-1 was on display at the Masdar booth, along with a large model of the London Array, an offshore wind farm that Masdar is building in partnership with e-on, a U.K. oil and gas company.
Deeper in the exhibit hall, exhibitors were grouped both by country and by sector, and the breadth of technologies and products on display highlighted the enormity of a topic