Whoever said environmentalism doesn’t pay has never been to Abu Dhabi. The desert emirate, which possesses 8% of global oil reserves, has allocated serious money over the past several years on the Masdar Initiative, a multi-pronged effort to advance the cause of sustainability and clean tech. The best-known example is the low-carbon development Masdar City—more soon on a visit I took there today—but Masdar also awards the Zayed Future Energy Prize to leaders in renewable power and sustainability. $1.5 million goes to the winner, along with $350,000 each to the two finalists. That’s serious money in this field—giving credence to the Masdar claim that the prize is the Nobel of clean tech. And if you think it’s strange that the Nobel of clean tech would be given by an oil-rich Middle Eastern emirate, well, why exactly do a bunch of Swedes pick the Nobel Prizes (except for the Peace Prize, awarded by the Norwegians), which is paid for an arms dealer’s money anyway?
But that’s just background. The winner this year is… Vestas, the industry-leading Danish wind turbine manufacturer. (Amory Lovins, the energy-efficient head of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and E+Co, a small New Jersey company that invests in small-scale clean energy projects in the developing world, were runner-up, earning $350,000 each.)
To be honest, I was a bit puzzled. Vestas is definitely a clean tech leader and pioneer—the company, which got into the wind business well before corporate titans like Siemens and GE, has made more than 41,000 turbines, generating more than 60 million MWh of energy each year. Over the lifetime of the corporation, that’s more than any other company—enough electricity on an annual basis to power 21 million people. “The winner is an organization that has embodied every aspect of innovation,” said Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the leader of the Zayed Prize jury this year. “Through innovation, imagination and persistence, Vestas put wind on the radar screen.”
Still, does an established company like Vestas really represent future energy, considering that wind turbines are almost as mature a technology as oil or natural gas? (Indeed, Vestas CEO Ditlev Engel—in Abu Dhabi to accept the award—talked about the company’s ambition to be considered on par with oil and natural gas, and his interest on working with the established energy system.) And will $1.5 million make much difference to a major company like Vestas, with profits of $775 million in 2009, compared to finalists like the Barefoot College of India, which trains rural women to install solar systems? The choice also continued a mini-trend of giving the award to big corporations—last year’s winner was Toyota for its hybrid cars. (The first winner was Dipal Barua, a Bangladeshi who builds off-grid solar and renewable power systems for the poor.)
it should be noted that Engel graciously announced on stage that he would split the pot with all the other finalists, meaning that worthies like the Barefoot College and Terry Tamminen (CEO of 7th Generation Advisors and former clean tech aide to ex-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger) made hundreds of thousands as well. I suppose you could look at the prize as a kind of lifetime achievement award to a pioneering company that’s finally being recognized for its success—like when Jeff Bridges finally got an Oscar for Crazy Heart (even though everyone knows The Big Lebowski was a far superior performance). “The first [turbine] blade we made was baked in someone’s oven,” said Engel. “This means a lot to our 27,000 colleagues now.”
So I won’t begrudge Vestas its win, even if I would have gone for Lovins, who can make energy efficiency sound like most exciting, revolutionary concept around. (Lovins was definitely the hip indie movie pick.) I just hope that the Zayed Future Energy Prize is still around in a century, when it’s really the Nobel Prize of clean tech—and when we can really start arguing over their picks.