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Clean energy a passion for US-based firm RMI

Staff Reporter / 22 December 2012

Building on its success in 2012, the Zayed Future Energy Prize, launched in 2008 and managed by Masdar, will award five distinct categories during its 2013 awards ceremony.

Khaleej TimesThe initiative represents the vision of the late Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founding father of the UAE, who championed environmental stewardship and sustainability as a fundamental aspect of the UAE’s heritage. The annual award celebrates achievements that reflect impact, innovation, long-term vision and leadership in renewable energy and sustainability.

The Zayed Future Energy Prize has recognised some of the most innovative, visionary leaders in global sustainability. Winners, finalists, and other entrants have made a significant positive impact on the world’s environment with their path-breaking solutions.

In a six-part series we profile companies that have shown leadership and long-term vision in championing the cause of renewable energy and sustainability. The second company we profile is a US based-firm with its headquarters in Colorado, called Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), which is a ‘think tank’ that delivers research and consultancy in energy efficiency and renewable energy. The company was co-founded by Amory Lovins.

In an interview, Marty Pickett, Executive Director and General Consel at RMI, talks about why they decided to participate in the prize and what they intend to do should they take home the award. She talks about the passion and dedication of RMI’s co-founder and staff about their mission towards the efficient and restorative use of resources and the challenges faced by them. 

What motivated you to apply for the Zayed Energy Prize?

We decided that entering the Zayed Future Energy Prize 2013 would be timely for our organisation, which coincides with our 30th anniversary and the release of the latest edition of our ambitious work: ‘Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for a New Energy Era’.

What motivated you to do what you do? 

Rocky Mountain Institute’s co-founder and staff are highly dedicated and passionate about our mission to drive the efficient and restorative use of resources. We believe our strategy to transform the four energy-using sectors — buildings, transportation, industry, and electricity — through efficiency and renewables is doable and profitable. We are incentivised by and hopeful about RMI’s vision of a world thriving, verdant, and secure, for all, forever.

Should you take home the prize, what do you plan to do with the prize fund? For those with non-cash rewards, how do you think the prize will benefit your business? 

  • Providing scholarships as well as support for regulators, entrepreneurs and policy makers to participate in our electricity innovation lab (eLab) initiative and important pilot/demonstration projects spawned by eLab
  • Expanding our work in the solar industry to reduce Solar PV system installation costs and ensure the industry successfully achieves true scale to become a major contributor of the global energy infrastructure
  • Expanding our Commercial Building Retrofit Challenge, an ambitious project led by RMI to assist large corporations to radically rethink and dramatically reduce the energy use of the building portfolio they own and operate around the world.

Categories for the prize:

Five distinct categories during the 2013 awards ceremony: Large Corporation: recognition award Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SME): US$1.5 million; Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO): US$1.5 million; Lifetime Achievement Award: US $500,000, and the Global High Schools Prize: US$500,000 divided among five regions with each school awarded up to US$100,000 (Africa, Asia, the Americas, Oceania, and Europe).

All categories are assessed on the basis of four key criteria: impact, innovation, leadership and long-term vision.

The award ceremony will take place on January 15, 2013, as part of the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

How does the current conditions of the market affect you or your conviction in findings these necessary solutions? 

With two billion people entering the middle class between today and 2030, combined with the threat of dramatic climate change, it is essential that infrastructure is designed for the future and not based on 19th century principles and technologies. For three decades, RMI has put forth an optimistic vision for the future and worked with leading institutions to identify ways. In 2011, we published Reinventing Fire and in 2012, we are ready to work with leaders in industry and government to make it happen.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in the implementation of renewable energy and/or sustainable energy solutions?

To be competitive, sustainable energy solutions must achieve levels of cost and convenience on par with established alternatives. This is a significant challenge for emerging renewable technologies — particularly as they compete with mature technologies in some of the most sophisticated markets in the world. Long-term viability cannot be dependent upon subsidies and other forms of market support. Technologies, supply chains, delivery options, and after-market support networks must, therefore, improve.

While we are witnessing substantial cost reduction in manufacturing processes for a number of the leading sustainable energy technologies (for instance, PV Solar’s 35%+ cost decrease in cells for more than five years in a row), these gains have not fully translated to market. In the US, our average residential cost for a solar installation is nearly $6 per watt, while the cost of the cheapest cells is roughly 1/10th of that total.

Cost reductions and customer offers, however, cannot alone drive substantial increase in renewable energy use. There are frequently system barriers that prevent adoption. The electricity sector is an example of a business system that is bound by its own inertia and where the additional risk posed by renewables or the potential changes to a system that values consistency and high reliability can be unwelcome.

What, in your opinion, are the three biggest issues facing renewable energy adoption?

Cost competitiveness – The ability to establish renewable energy as a viable cost competitive alternative to traditional sources of energy is paramount to its success. Considerable progress has been made in this direction, particularly in solar and wind electricity generation. There is, nonetheless, additional development required in these sectors along with other areas such as biofuels, biomass, storage, and a host of supporting technologies. Significant innovation is needed for development of technology and business models to ensure that clean energy options can service an expanding market lacking policy support.

System barriers — Legacy infrastructure, business models and regulatory compacts frequently block sustainable energy progress. Systemic barriers restrict new technologies, distort the earnings potential for early adopters, or prohibit the use of renewable energy beyond pre-defined levels. This is particularly true in the electricity grid, but similar evidence also exists in bio-fuels transportation. Customer value proposition — While numerous surveys that highlight the willingness of customers to adopt clean energy (and in many cases even pay more for it) exist, there are few places in the world where large-scale adoption has progressed without policy intervention. While cost can play an important role in accelerating adoption, evidence suggests that even in markets where renewables are economic and system barriers have been removed, customers remain slow to purchase clean energy. The gap clearly suggests a need to better understand the customer value proposition and establish specific offers around clean energy.

What do you think of the newly launched Global High Schools Prize category?

For the past two years, Rocky Mountain Institute has partnered with a college in the US to deliver a week-long environmental summit to educate high school students about whole systems thinking and application of diverse skills to environmental stewardship and transforming energy use. The project helped us realize the power of educating and motivating the next generation to be proactive about their own energy future. The Global High Schools Prize will motivate innovation and leadership in an important sector that must get energy use right. - news@khaleejtimes.com

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