Simply Brilliant

Vestas Windmills

Vestas Windmills

The price of a barrel of light, sweet crude is up almost 15% in the past week, flirting with $100 for the past two days. Even though Libya supplies less than 3% of the world's oil, the violent turn to the demonstrations there has amplified the sense brought on by events in Tunisia and Egypt that the entire Middle East is prepared to agitate for change--at any price. There have even been whispers that Saudi Arabia could go. Unthinkable a few short weeks ago.

The price spike, the unease, anxiety, rumors--all sharply spotlight a challenge the world sidesteps in calmer times: how to address global dependence on a finite resource that is controlled by a small number of countries--dependence that is becoming increasingly complex as growth continues apace in India, China, Brazil and other emerging economies? And, digging deeper, how to address it in an environmentally sound manner?

Ironically, a tiny United Arab Emirate--Abu Dhabi, home of the world's 10th largest oil company and close to 10% of the world's oil reserves--has been at the forefront of provocative, visionary thinking on both of these questions for the last five years. And not only has it been thinking, but it's been actively soliciting, engaging and challenging leading global engineers, social scientists, academicians, politicians, multinational corporations, entrepreneurs and architects to do so with it.

Propelled by a commitment to collaboration and a powerful vision--to make Abu Dhabi a renewable energy leader and sustainable development standard bearer--two significant projects have received headline press: the revolutionary eco-urban development project, Masdar City (designed by London-based Foster + Partners), and the World Future Energy Summit, hosted in January each year since 2008, drawing 26,000 attendees to the Gulf nation for this year's show.

Only slightly less headline-grabbing, but of utmost importance given current events, is the nation's $2.2 million, forward-thinking Zayed Future Energy Prize. Designed to "recognize and honor outstanding, innovative achievements in the global search for a sustainable energy future", a broad spirit of shared purpose permeates the three year old prize's ethos.

Members of the award's evaluation committees represent a wide swath of the globe (although Latin America and Africa are notably under-represented), diplomats, engineers, architects, university presidents, political leaders, environmentalists, strategic planners, financiers. Nominees may be individuals, companies, organizations or NGO's from around the world and can be working at the grassroots level or multinationally, as long as they are promoting commercially viable clean energy solutions.

This year's winner of the $1.5 million first prize was Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas. Runners up--both awarded $350,000, both American--were Armory Lovins--Chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, physicist and pioneer of integrative, energy-efficient design--and E + Co--a path-breaking clean energy investment company engaged in developing markets. The diversity of scope, focus and geography of this year's winners mirrors that of the remaining three finalists, as well as of the 2010 and 2009 awardees.

With the Zayed Future Energy Prize Abu Dhabi is deliberately stepping beyond hand wringing about one of the most profoundly pressing concerns of our day--recognizing both the urgency and the global nature of the issue, providing leadership and inspiration, catalyzing conversation across borders and specialties, breaking down silos, knocking down walls, keeping things going, moving them forward in a sustained way. Powerfully positive, simply brilliant.

Although the deadline for the 2012 prize application has not yet been announced, past nomination processes have opened in late May with applications due in October. Below, a brief video of the final deliberation process for the 2011 prize--a touch of Apprentice, with comments from the highly accomplished jury and heart-pumping background music.

This year, upon receipt of its prize Vestas announced that it would donate $750,000 to the creation of an innovative consumer labeling initiative WindMade. The remaining $750,000 was generously split evenly between the other three finalists for the prize--India's Barefoot College, Arizona's First Solar and Terry Tamminem, Founder and President of California's Seventh Generation Advisors. You can read notes from Christine Eibs Singer, Co-founder and CEO of E + Co, on the experience of attending the World Future Energy Summit and receiving the award here.

One final note: the makeup of the 2011 applicant pool and finalist list bears testimony to the fact that energy innovation is, in fact, alive and well in the United States: of the 391 formal applications reviewed (up 30% from the year prior), 121 were from the U.S.. The next closest country represented was the U.K., with 30 entries.