Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber knows when most people think of Abu Dhabi, they think of fossil fuels — after all, the Middle Eastern city is home to some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves. But as chief executive of Masdar, a government-backed renewable energy company, Jaber has been tasked with ensuring that his city uses its energy background to become a leader in the clean technology industry. He recently spoke with Globe reporter Erin Ailworth about how Masdar’s work has been received.
You are a chemical and petroleum engineer by background, and started your career in the oil and gas sector. How did you come to lead Masdar?
When the leadership decided to seriously explore expanding our energy profile from oil and gas and the petrochemical industry into renewable energy, I was mandated, because of my mixed background in the energy sector and my knowledge about the economics of the energy sector, to lead such an initiative.
What were your first impressions upon moving from oil and gas to renewable energy?
To be very frank with you, when we started working on getting a better understanding or a better definition of what the [clean technology] sector is all about or where the renewable energy stands, I started with a perception that renewable energy was way too immature. But it didn’t take me much [time] to realize that wait a second, no, renewable energy is not way too immature. The technology itself is mature enough. The problem is the fragmentation, the lack of coordination, the lack of communication, and the lack of regulatory frameworks or policy, or a platform that puts it all together to address the real challenges.
I realized, “Wait we do actually have a great opportunity here. We can turn this world’s challenge into an opportunity only if we are able to capitalize on our deep energy expertise and our financial resources, as well as [on] our reach and our network, and partnerships that we have created over the years.”
Talk about Masdar’s approach to renewable energy. The company invests in clean energy technologies, projects, and companies, but also created a research institute focused on developing renewable energy technologies. Why?
[Again] one of the very main challenges in the whole sector is the fragmentation that’s taking place within the sector.
We address it through education, through research and development — and that is covered by the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in partnership with MIT.
We [also] do it through the investment in technologies, through our [venture capital] funds or private equity funds, or our direct investments. And we invest also in the commercialization of these technologies and [in] deploying them in very large scale. A good example of that is our 100-megawatt [concentrating solar power] plant in Abu Dhabi, or our solar power plants in Spain, or our 1,000-megawatt offshore wind farm we have in the UK.
What about the effort to create a clean technology cluster through the company’s Masdar City project?
Now, Masdar City, it might sound like it’s a real estate play, but it’s not a real estate play. It is in fact a platform, a living laboratory that brings everyone together. [It] brings the different talents, the different technologies, the different financing mechanisms together in one place within the same boundaries to rub shoulders against each other, generate ideas, and help each other accelerate the development [of clean technologies].
How have Masdar’s efforts been received, especially by Abu Dhabi’s oil and gas industry?
To a lot of people, when they hear the name Abu Dhabi, they remember oil, gas. And that’s right — Abu Dhabi possesses the fifth largest oil reserve in the world and the seventh largest gas reserve in the world. Yet, we don’t see that renewable energy is a threat to our natural resources. In fact, we see it complement, and help extend the lifetime and the value, and increase the upside of our hydrocarbon resources.
A good example is the carbon capture and storage initiatives that we are undertaking in Abu Dhabi.
Yes, we are only studying and researching and piloting some of these technologies, but capturing carbon and using it for enhanced oil recovery is a natural fit for our industry. And the reason why we believe that the carbon capture and storage technology could provide a unique platform or unique solution for Abu Dhabi is simply because it will liberate and free up gas that is currently being [reinjected] in our oil reservoirs to maintain reservoir pressures and enhance oil recovery. So this will liberate gas, and at the same time allow us to make use of the CO2 emissions [in reservoirs].
Why the focus on renewable energy now?
We have always been a responsible energy player. In 1979 we were the first oil producing nation that instituted a zero gas flaring policy. So we have a long track record and a robust history when it comes to our environmental stewardship.
But guess what, we have added a new stream to our business: export [renewable energy] knowledge through Masdar, export green electrons, export technology.
We are capitalizing on our deep energy expertise from the oil and gas sector, and the substantial financial resources from the oil and gas sector, and reinvesting it in the clean power and the clean energy sector.