This morning, Georgetown University announced a $5 million prize to the community that can come up with the best program to reduce energy consumption over the next couple of years. The Georgetown University Energy Prize (GUEP) will be available to any one of the 8,892 U.S. communities hosting a population of between 5,000 and 250,000 residents. That’s 65% of America’s cities and towns.
The prize was the brainstorm of Georgetown physics professor, Dr. Francis Slakey. Dr. Slakey is a man who aims high. One can discern that pretty readily from his most recent book, To The Last Breath: A Memoir of Going to Extremes. In younger days, his mission was to climb the highest mountain on each continent and surf each of the world’s oceans
The Challenge Of Energy Efficiency
Now the Georgetown University Ph.D. physicist has his sights set on a new and perhaps more daunting challenge: how to address the global energy and environmental challenges we face on this planet. Slakey recently conceived of the energy prize to stimulate innovation and competition in applying efficient practices and technologies. And he is focusing on the one level of government that still functions well in this country: the municipality.
The general aim of this prize is to stimulate innovation in efficiency, replicable best practices, and improved education, while increasing the visibility of Georgetown and its partners. The larger goal of the award is to create a meaningful inflection point with respect to the way communities think about and use energy.
In a recent conversation, Slakey commented that he developed the concept of a prize when pondering the issue of sustainability and the vast potential to use our energy resources more efficiently.
What’s the world’s number one fuel source? Is the answer petroleum? No. Coal ? Natural gas? No. A recent report by the International Energy Agency shows it is energy efficiency. That’s the number one fuel source. Savings from energy efficiency are greater than the output of any other fuel. We are sitting on this vast reservoir of energy. Energy saved is energy found, and we have to mine for efficiency as expertly as we mine for coal, petroleum and natural gas.
And yet, while the resource is there, and it is highly cost-effective, yielding returns that often exceed 25 or 30%, few people actually take action to make cost-effective efficiency investments. It’s behavior that has vexed efficiency experts for years.
This is what we refer to as a ‘stuck problem.’ People want energy efficiency, but they don’t do anything about it.”
So Slakey convened a group of energy efficiency experts, and they got to work.
This wasn’t all just me. I started about 20 months ago with a brainstorming session at Georgetown – a genuine brainstorming session. No PowerPoint, no lectures, but lots of coffee. We asked ourselves “How do you burst through that wall to improve energy efficiency?…What popped out of that was a radically different approach to transforming how America uses energy. We didn’t end up with more subsidies, tax breaks, etc.
Gallons of coffee and creative conversations finally led to an interesting possibility: ‘What if we create a prize?’
The Role of Prizes In History
After all, prizes have played a crucial role for the past 300 years in helping society solve some vexing problems. Exactly 300 years ago, in 1714, the British government offered the £20,000 Longitude Prize to that individual who could solve the problem of measuring longitude (the east-west position). John Harrison invented the chronometer in response (though he was awarded only part of the prize money; for a wonderful read, pick up Dava Sobel’s book,Longitude). Slakey noted, ‘Sobel’s book had an impact on my thinking – prizes can be transformative. I went into this with the idea of trying to transform the way America uses energy.’
Other prizes have also created change, some more profound than others. In 1863, the firm of Phelan and Collender created a $10,000 reward for patent rights to a suitable billiard ball made of something other than ivory. Five years later, a ‘celluloid’ sphere was developed by John Hyatt.
Lindberg’s famous 1927 non-stop flight across the Atlantic (after six fatal attempts by other would-be winners) was also motivated by prize money – in this case the $25,000 Orteig prize first offered in 1919 – which changed the way humanity looked at flight forever.
More recently, we have seen the $10 million X Prize offered for the first non-government team to launch a reusable spacecraft twice within two weeks (won in 2004). And the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot initiative is offering a prize to drive improvements in rooftop solar efficiencies. The DOE will award $10 million to be split among the first three companies that can ‘repeatedly demonstrate an average of $1 per watt for non-hardware costs such as permitting, interconnection, and inspection.’
Although they can be highly effective, prizes don’t always achieve the desired result. In 1990, a consortium of state and government agencies, non-profits, and utilities developed the $30 million ‘Golden Carrot’ Super Efficient Refrigerator Program. The goal of this prize was to spur development of a refrigerator that used markedly less energy than similar-sized models. In response, Whirlpool created a highly efficient refrigerator, but the numbers actually sold fell far below expectations and not all of the prize money was awarded. At the same time, however, the program was credited with increasing the efficiency levels of refrigerators produced by Whirlpool and other competitors, and contributing to the national 2001 appliance standards.
Slakey is optimistic that prizes can work in stimulating positive change. The challenge, he notes, is in defining the prize,
Whatever you design has to be scaled to fit the problem. For the last 20 months we have working to define the right prize to fit the problem.
The goal is to challenge communities “to work together with their local governments and utilities in order to develop and begin implementing plans for innovative, replicable, scalable, and continual reductions in the per capita energy consumed from local natural gas and electric utilities.” Each participant will be tasked with developing a long-term efficiency plan and to demonstrate initial efficacy over a two-year period.
The Competition TimeLine
The timeline is as follows:
1) April to June 2014 – suitors will submit a basic application (utilizing an existing template): the review team will evaluate and select a group of quarterfinalists
2) August to November 2014 – quarterfinalists develop a detailed efficiency plan: the review team will evaluate and select semifinalists
3) January 2015 to December 2016 – semifinalists implement efficiency plans to “reduce their utility-supplied energy consumption in a manner that is likely to yield continuing improvements within their own community and replication in other communities.”
4) January to June 2017 – panel selects winner of $5 million prize.