Architect outlines the realities of renewable building products and technologies in the Gulf.
The International Energy Group (IEG) is an international alliance of organizations created in 2008 to research advanced energy technologies in the GCC.
A division of the international investment arm of SS Lootah Group in Dubai, IEG enjoys strategic partnerships with Fraunhofer, a leading European think-tank and R&D organisation, and the World Association of Industrial and Technological Research Organizations (WAITRO).
The mandate of the IEG is simple: It aims to promote, develop and manage projects that can integrate and demonstrate clean/renewable energy in commercially viable ways.
According to the first official IEG report entitled ‘Future Energy Scenarios', the UAE has a power generation capacity of approximately 16GW. That number has doubled since 2000, increased a further 15% in the last two years and is projected to increase to 26GW sometime in 2010.
The UAE (and several other GCC nations) continues to subsidise electricity for its residents and, to further complicate matters, two of the largest energy-consuming industries in the world - aluminium smelting and petrochemical production - are the veritable bread and butter of the Gulf nation.
It is a fact that buildings consume approximately 70% of the world's total electricity, 40% of total energy and 40% of raw materials and, in doing so, produce an estimated 30% of all global greenhouse gas (identified as methane, CO2, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases). These numbers even outweigh the amounts of greenhouse gas produced by deforestation, automobiles and livestock rearing.
In a kind of ‘Part II' to this issue's earlier feature ‘Renewed Hope', Architect examines the technologies and building materials that should continue to be used in the region and some that, given the current climate and energy requirements, perhaps should be considered.
Every year the world's forests deliver up over 1.5 billion tonnes of timber for milling and industrial processing, not to mention, supplying fuel for about half its population. Because trees absorb carbon dioxide, if sourced sustainably, timber is the only building material available that boasts a positive rather than negative impact on the earth's greenhouse gasses.
As a building material, timber offers a warmth and texture that is uniquely malleable as well as renewable and bio-degradable. That said, there are challenges to using it in this region. First, it's a building material that is not historically associated with aesthetic beauty in the region. Second, timber is not a local material so it comes with significant embodied energy. Third, the weakening effects of the hot climate.
Jim Meyers, Middle East Manager of Calvert Company Inc., the US-based glued laminated timber manufacturer, assures consumers that timber doesn't buckle, warp or break under the stress of region's high temperature.
Citing several of Calvert's successful installations in Dubai Marina and Madinat Jumeirah, Meyers insists timber's bad rap comes from poor preservation rather than inherent weaknesses in the material.
Although a variety of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks can be used as building materials, the principal rock types throughout the industry are granite, limestone, marble, travertine, sandstone and slate.
Natural stones that can be selected, fabricated and polished to specific sizes, shapes and aesthetic qualities, dimension stone enjoys a very high profile in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, several critics in the industry are quick to point out that the highest quality stone in this region comes straight from the best veins in Europe and Asia. Again, we run into an embodied energy surplus for a building material that is most likely going to be used on inside.
Burmese Teak graces Dubai's Monarch Hotel, Mall of the Emirates boasts tiger-eyed marble flooring and the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC) features marble floors and columns. Marble in particular is being used so much in the region's residential projects that one firm attests that 90% of its clients request large-scale marble applications.
Throughout Europe and North America, several companies specialise in recycling concrete as a way of gaining sustainability points and reducing overall cost of the project. According to the US-based Portland Cement Association, construction and demolition waste in the US adds up to approximately 135 million tonnes annually, or about three pounds per person, per day.
While the UAE is a much smaller and younger building industry, the amount of concrete still going into infrastructure projects and the number of older developments being demolished to make way for newer ones makes a concrete recycling programme a worthwhile initiative.
Often used as aggregate base beneath pavement, bedding for utilities, landscaping for water features and as aggregate for ready-mix concrete, recycled concrete also reduces the amount of material that is landfilled and the need for virgin materials in new construction.
Fact: Aluminium can be recycled infinitely without a measurable loss of metal quality or properties and at the current levels of production, known bauxite ore reserves will last for hundreds of years.
Aluminium is admittedly an odd inclusion on a list of renewable building materials, especially since the smelting process from bauxite ore to alumina to original aluminium is among the building industry's most carbon unfriendly transitions. However, once original aluminium is created, the material quickly becomes the poster child for recyclability.
According the International Aluminium Institute, one kg of recycled aluminium can save up to eight kilograms of bauxite ore, four kilograms of alloy chemical products and 14-15 kilowatt hours of electricity.
Aluminium can provide everything in a building from interior/exterior panels to louvres to extruded sections to facades to the entire building envelope. "Everybody knows that aluminium is and will be the future of industry for many countries," says Ali Khalaf, managing director of Reynaers Middle East. The sheer versatility of the material suggests he just might be right.
PV systems directly convert solar irradiation into electric current without any intermediate thermal, chemical or mechanical steps. No CO2 is released in the transformation of sunlight into energy and no noise is produced. Especially in the Gulf, solar energy is virtually inexhaustible and to that end, several companies in the market are delving into PV systems that are reaching unprecedented levels of functionality and aesthetics.
According to the IEG, crystalline silicon PV modules have electrical efficiency of approximately 15% and usually guarantee around 25 years of functionality. That said, however, initial capital cost ranges from $6-10,000 per kilowatt. Current PV capacity is about 4GW and, despite all the publicity and technological developments, PVs are not expected to provide a significant portion of the region's energy requirements.
"Even at today's historically high growth rates, [PVs] may be unable to reach 1% of global capacity in the near future," states the IEG Report.
Thin-film PV (TFPV) and Concentrating PV (CPV) has the potential to change the way we think about PVs in buildings. TFPV produces electricity using a very thin layer of PV material deposited on a substrate instead of the usual 200 micron-thick silicon wafers and can reach efficiencies of up to 12%. The fact is, TFPV can offer similar - although admittedly lower - electrical efficiency with a sizeable reduction in silicon and overall material cost.
CPV relies on cost-efficient lenses to concentrate the solar energy onto a high efficiency - less than 30% - multi-junction silicon cell, which, if successful, is projected to deliver several hundred times more electricity than conventional PV.
Bahrain World Trade Center is the regional icon for integrating wind turbines into towers. Atkins' DIFC Lighthouse in Business Bay is the second groundbreaking example of turbine/architecture integration from the practice. David Fisher's rotating towers are projected to integrate a turbine into every floor of the building which, as it rotates, fulfils all of its necessary energy requirements.
All of these, however, have become a bit passé. They were all launched and received with great levels of excitement but the reality of incorporating wind turbines into buildings is slightly underwhelming.
Site selection for the building is paramount. Usually, wind speeds upwards of 5m/s are required for cost-effective operation but in the UAE, average wind speeds are less than that, which ultimately negates the turbine. Shaun Killa, principal designer and lead architect on BWTC, spent more than six months studying wind patterns in Bahrain Bay trying to orient the towers to capture as much wind as possible.
Despite all of his efforts, BWTC provides, at most, 15% of overall energy requirements of the building when fully functional. As it stands, the turbines on BWTC operate just 50% of the time because of Bahrain's inability to accept energy surpluses into its national grid.
According the IEG, wind power is facing three more challenges from its critics: a) local opposition from people living nearby; b) environmental impact (i.e. noise, vibration, bird safety, natural views); c) overall reliability and efficiency. Not to mention, at its height, after worldwide installed capacity of turbines doubles as predicted, wind power will constitute a mere 1.5% of the world's total electricity capacity.
It's often said that incorporating wind turbines into architecture makes an incredibly powerful statement about the developer/client's commitment to eco-friendliness despite their underwhelming performance. If true, wind turbines constitute, perhaps, the most expensive, yet visually effective, symbol of green building.
The IEG has conducted several studies into tri- and quad-generation on-site power production that is equal to or more efficient than electricity from central plants.
But, before these state-of-the-art systems can get to work producing power, heat and cooling (and desalinated water in the case of quad-generation) very complex infrastructure needs to be in place and fully operational, which means heavy investment - both intellectually and financially - from policymakers and heads of state. Many Gulf countries are simply unready to make this commitment.
On another note, nuclear energy is something the UAE seems committed to, which is evidenced by the UAE/France nuclear cooperation deal for two 1.6GW power stations to be built by French firms.
This, of course, raises a host of concerns (not the least of which are environmental and safety) but the IEG contends that if appropriate lessons are learned from past mistakes and international standards and best practices are enforced, nuclear energy could be considered a source of green energy.
There is currently no other power generation technology that offers the possibility to generate such enormous power outputs with so little combustible material while producing zero emissions.
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