Energy: A Prize in the Desert Aims to Become the Cleantech Nobel

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I’m traveling today to the Energy Innovation 2010 conference in Washington, where I’ll be moderating a panel tomorrow on innovation policy, so I apologize for the light posting today. I’ll have more on the conference tomorrow, which brings together thinkers and journalists who are looking for a new way to crack the energy and climate problem.

But I did want to draw attention to the announcement for the nominees of a newish award that could inject fresh prestige—and capital—into the energy quest. The Zayed Future Energy Prize—from the same people in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates (UAE) who brought you the Masdar Initiative—is an award that recognizes innovation, performance and leadership in sustainable and renewable energy solutions. No shortage of those around, including the Heinz Awards and the Goldman Prize, established by the San Francisco philanthropist Richard Goldman, who just passed away recently.

But the Zayed Future Energy Prize—named after the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, considered the founding father of the UAE—has something that makes it stand out: serious funding. The winner of the prize, which is now in its third year, gets $1.5 million, while two other finalists will get $350,000 each. (For comparison’s sake, that’s a little more than this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner will get—or would, if the dissident Liu Xiaobao weren’t under arrest somewhere in China.) That’s real capital. “This is a prize that will contribute to a real transformation of the world,” Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, Masdar’s Managing Director and CEO, told me recently.

The Masdar Initiative aims to make the city of Abu Dhabi a clean technology hub, a process that includes the creation of Masdar City, the ultra-modern, zero-carbon zero-waste settlement being designed by the British architect Norman Foster. But what’s interesting is that so far the prize hasn’t always gone to high-tech entrepreneurs—the first winner in 2009 was Dipal Barua, founder of the Bright Green Energy Foundation, a Bangladeshi group that innovates market-based tools for the rural poor, including a biogas cooker that Barua himself invented. “This is about creating true sustainability,” says Sultan.

The organization just released the short list of nominees for this year’s prize, and it’s an admirable mix—from India’s Barefoot College, which teaches rural women how to install solar, to the electric-car startup Better Place. The list will be winnowed down by an independent jury that includes green luminaries like R.K. Pachauri, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Susan Hockfield, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with the winner being announced at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi on January 17 to 20.

Sultan clearly has big goals for the prize, as he does for Masdar. “We want the prize to transform renewable energy and sustainability,” he says. “This is the vision we have.” But even if it doesn’t quite do all that, it’s nice to say in an age of energy budget cutbacks a prize that recognizes the size of the challenge before us.

More from TIME on Masdar:

Abu Dhabi: An Oil Giant Dreams Green

Desert Dreams