CLEAN TECH:

Financial woes crimp celebrated Middle East 'green city'

A money crunch has forced the scaling back of a futuristic, sustainable research park being built in the United Arab Emirates, , according to project officials.

Alan Frost, the director of the Masdar City property development unit, told The National newspaper in UAE's capital, Abu Dhabi, that Masdar would cut costs by bringing in an outside developer to assist with construction. Frost's office has laid off 34 employees, about 20 percent of its staff, the newspaper reported yesterday.

A technology originally planned for the whole city -- computer-driven "personal rapid transit" pods -- might now be limited to the site of the research institute, the paper reported. The project is also reconsidering its plan to generate all of its power on-site from renewable sources, and is looking at importing power from elsewhere, Frost told the newspaper.

Launched with great fanfare in 2006, the Masdar Initiative is aimed at building a city with zero carbon emissions in the desert near Abu Dhabi and includes plans for a world-class research university modeled on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as high-tech corporate tenants and venture capitalists.

The research institute is under construction now, and the entire city was originally slated for completion by 2016. But officials in January said a segment of the city would be delivered first in a test of market readiness.

Fred Moavenzadeh, the director of MIT's technology and development program and head of the school's work with Masdar, said there are no immediate plans to scale back the research institute.

"Because of the drop in the housing market and the drop in the real estate property, they are planning to slow down the development" of the city, Moavenzadeh said, citing news reports.

"The institute is very independent from the Masdar Initiative, in the sense that it is a private university, not-for-profit, in that it is run by a board of trustees that is chaired by the crown prince and funded directly from the government," he added.

"Masdar City is committed to finish our campus, and I believe that ... the first phase of the delivery will take place sometime in April or May," with final delivery expected before students are scheduled to move in, in August.

Acknowledging that the city is also funded by the Abu Dhabian government, Moavenzadeh said he had not heard any indication that the institute's budget would be affected by the initiative's change in plans.

In fact, he said, the school is requesting additional funding for the coming year to fully equip laboratory space for new faculty members hired in microelectronics, a field that requires both pricey equipment and access to expensive "clean rooms."

Interconnections between the research institute and the high-tech community of Masdar City have been among the key selling points of the initiative, and changes to plans for the city could affect those collaborations. But Moavenzadeh expressed confidence that faculty research projects would not be hurt.

"I believe they will be continued, because the Masdar City administration sort of needs the type of study that the faculty and their students are doing," he said. "These faculty and their students can look at the feasibility of some of the proposed technologies," as well as the optimal scale, potential side effects and alternatives, he said.

Moavenzadeh said his recent conversations with Sultan al Jaber, the CEO of Masdar, have given no indication that the research center's activities would be cut back.

"These are not esoteric projects they are doing; they are very practical, down-to-earth projects," he said.