The Wild World of the $3.5 Million 'Future Energy Prize'

What do Leonardo DiCaprio, the Prime Minister of Iceland, and Andre Agassi have in common? They all help award millions of dollars to folks solving the world's energy problems, of course ...

The 2012 Zayed Future Energy Prize was awarded last Tuesday, during, appropriately, the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi. This embryonic award (it's only a few years old) is still establishing its identity, but that's what makes the prize so much fun. Here's how it works:

The generous prize ($3.5 million) is awarded to NGOs, small businesses, and individuals that have done impressive work in the energy world during the last year. Typically, candidates include nonprofits bringing solar power to Africa, talented researchers doing cutting edge work in clean energy, or companies with a stellar environmental bent (the Danish wind company Vestas won last year). The prize money is put up by Masdar, oil-rich Abu Dhabi's clean energy company. Essentially, this is oil money. A lot of oil money.

And who decides who gets it? An eclectic jury—though 'eclectic' is an understatement, as you shall soon see. It includes, as you may have gathered, the prime minister of Iceland, tennis legend Andre Agassi, the president of MIT, Cheri Blair, and Leonardo DiCaprio. (Unfortunately, a pre-recorded video informed the crowd that Leo wouldn't be attending in person)

The $3.5 million prize is then awarded inside the Emirates Palace, the most expensive hotel ever built—it cost an estimated $3-4 billion, and the interior is literally covered in gold. But first, there is, of course, an awards ceremony, which opened with a ten year-old playing the United Arab Emirates' national anthem on the violin, and gave way to a batch of videos and much speechifying. Iceland's prime minister, Olaffur Grimsson, who happens to be a really good public speaker (he spoke at this year's Poptech—guy gets around), gave a rousing address on the need to find climate solutions. Then, an extended musical number burst forth that featured both the equivalent of a Journey cover band and a small army of Arabic drummers. Just when I thought it couldn't get any crazier, a white-robed sax player burst onto the scene.

And then they doled out the awards. Which, this year, went to:

-Carbon Disclosure Project, which won $1.5 million for its work creating a global system for governments and companies to store, share, and manage climate and water data.

-Orb Energy, "an India-based provider of solar-based energy efficiency and heating solutions, was named first runner-up in the SME &NGO category with a cash prize of $1 million."

-Environmental Defense Fund, which snagged $500,000, for "its actions to create awareness and expand the adoption of renewable energy and sustainability practices."

A Lifetime Achievement Award, and $500,000, was given to physicist Dr. Ashok Gadgil for "his sustainable humanitarian work in Darfur and pioneering efforts to invent the energy efficient “Berkeley – Darfur” cooking stove, which reduces the need for firewood by 55 percent." Schneider Electric, a French energy company, won the 'Large Corporation' category, with no cash prize.

All told, it was awesome. Strange, bombastic, and awesome. I appreciate what Abu Dhabi is trying to do here: Create a prestigious award for excellence in solving the world's energy problems. But what it actually has already done—made an lavish, odd, and intriguing event that celebrates achievements in energy with off-the-wall grandiosity—might be just as important. Sure, as word spreads of that generous million+ purse, more energy outfits will be keen to participate. But hosting a wild, high-profile event that folks can discuss at cocktail parties and in blog posts adds a cultural element that might end up adding as much interest to energy affairs as the award itself. After all, we need, more than anything, to get people talking.

So next time, they just have to get Leo to show up in person.

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