By Lynn Scarlett, Co-Chief External Affairs Officer, The Nature Conservancy
Before the term “reality TV” emerged in the 1990’s, there were “game shows.” The premise was simple—the promise of FABULOUS PRIZES would drive ordinary human beings to do unusual things. They would reveal the most intimate secrets of their marital life (“The Newlywed Game”), guess at everything from the price of a new living room set (“The Price is Right”) to what responses people gave in a survey to the question, “Name something that you shake before using,” (“Family Feud”) or give performances that ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous (“The Gong Show”). Dangle even a modest amount of money in front of a group of people, ask them to compete for it, and interesting things would start to happen.
One of those things may actually be in your home right now. If you have an LED light bulb, you can thank the “Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prize,” or L Prize, hosted by the Department of Energy in 2008. The competition, which boasted a $10 million purse for the winner in the 60-watt bulb category, was awarded to the Philips Corporation in 2011. Company executives acknowledge that the prize encouraged increased attention and spending within the company, and have said that the technology involved was brought to market at least three to five years faster because of the incentive provided by the competition. And LED lighting, because it uses so little electricity and lasts so long, saves consumers significant amounts of money over the long term.
Representatives Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and John Faso (R-NY) of the House Climate Solutions Caucus have introduced a bill that would harness the dynamic of offering prizes to address climate change and the transition to clean energy. The Challenges and Prizes for Climate Act of 2018 will leverage the federal government’s existing programs to create competitions for next-generation climate technologies and solutions. The competitions will offer prizes for advancements in a number of technologies related to a low-carbon future, including carbon capture, energy efficiency, energy storage and data analytics.
We are already seeing tremendous interest and investment in these areas. As I’ve discussed previously in this blog, battery technology is advancing at a breakneck pace—becoming better and cheaper. Costs for storing power using a combination of batteries and renewable energy have declined so that these technologies rival natural gas in many places. And newer technologies that promise to be safer and easier to scale than the more traditional lithium ion batteries are in the works. Prize competitions are a positive means for government to encourage innovation and foster an urgency to bring products to market faster.
As climate change continues to threaten our communities, our economy and the environment, the urgency has never been greater. Anything that we can do to encourage action now (rather than later) is important. But regardless of whether you find that urgency compelling, the fact is that consumers benefit when industry is challenged to create better solutions.
Inertia is a powerful force and the natural enemy of progress. Prizes encourage companies to take on challenges that confront communities, but which they might otherwise pass up on investing in because the risk-return ratio just seems too high. Prizes also encourage innovators to seek each other out and collaborate with new and unusual partners, to entertain ideas that are “outside the box.” And when prizes are won, the story of innovation contains some natural excitement—the thrill of competition, of solving a problem or unraveling a mystery, and the joy of being declared a winner. These stories then become the fuel to inspire even more innovation.
But what makes Prize competitions like the one proposed in the bill most attractive might be the fact that they are cost-effective. Unlike grant-based investment in research, which spends money on the research whether or not it yields the desired results, prizes are paid only when success, as defined by the one awarding the prize, is achieved. Moreover, the incentive of the prize can encourage more than one participant to go after it, meaning a single award can prompt work in several research streams at once.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not advocating that all research should be funded through prize mechanisms. Many of the most important, large-scale, complicated problems that we face as a society and that researchers address require committed long-term investments by both the public and private sectors. In fact, a variety of new funding mechanisms have emerged in recent years to further conservation work, and The Nature Conservancy has been a pioneer in this regard. But if what you want is a jump start for new technology and new ideas, something that not only solves a current problem but captures the imagination and provides a good example of what’s possible, it’s hard to beat a prize competition.