Access to affordable and abundant energy has enabled some of the most incredible advances in human history. Worldwide, cheap energy has fueled massive economic growth, lifted billions of people out of poverty, expanded agricultural production, and lengthened human lifespans.
But the staggering environmental and public health impacts of our modern energy system are well-documented too. It has become commonplace to illustrate the problems of climate change, air pollution, and lack of access to electricity as critical failures that demand rethinking energy. But many solutions proposed are too often linear at best, while the problems, especially climate change, are getting exponentially worse.
Humanity can do better. Solutions don’t need to be linear. We can rapidly solve the problems of our energy system with global and exponential approaches. For example, the remarkable drop in the price per kilowatt-hour of solar photovoltaic cells has drawn analogies to Moore’s Law of exponential growth in computer chip transistor density, and prompted an influx of new ideas in the energy space. Through open innovation, modernized regulatory systems, and new business models, we can evolve from complaints about the status quo to rapidly identifying and deploying real solutions to our grandest challenges.
Consider what happened with telecommunications: places like sub-Saharan Africa, which had few telephone wires for communicating, rapidly adopted mobile phones. Could a new approach to energy leapfrog a similarly centralized electricity model? With the innovative approaches to energy being pioneered in Africa today – for example, using small renewable systems combined with mobile payment systems – it is quite possible that national grids will be disrupted by new approaches from regions that have never had access to reliable electric power.
Capitalizing on the power of the crowd and models that reduce risk will help accelerate this important transition. By harnessing genius of the crowd, we can rapidly identify energy breakthroughs because we exponentially increase both the number of innovators and the diversity of problem-solving approaches. Open innovation–crowdsourcing, challenge grants, hackathons, and others–gives innovators everywhere more shots on goal. And all we need is one shot to go in.
One of the most successful open innovation models is the incentive prize competition. Prizes catalyze exponential solutions to grand challenges by identifying an audacious target for anyone to try and meet, and then paying the innovators that can solve that challenge.
XPRIZE is committed to applying the prize model to incentivize a better energy future. XPRIZE has started with perhaps the most pressing problem of our current energy system: the CO2 emissions that drive climate change. While fossil fuels have unleashed unprecedented improvements in everything from transportation to industry, the consequence of unfettered release of CO2 has the potential to devastate our planet.
We recently announced the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, a four-year competition that challenges anyone from anywhere in the world to develop innovative approaches for converting CO2 emissions into valuable products. The teams that convert the most CO2 from a working power plant into products that have the highest value will take home the $20 million prize.
The Carbon XPRIZE highlights how we can target solutions to specific problems by reducing the cost of finding new solutions in the energy industry. Open innovation tools and the power of the crowd can become our greatest assets in reducing the risk that comes with disrupting a critical system like energy.
In traditional R&D, money is provided in advance to invest in the development of possible solutions. Conversely, in a prize model, teams must demonstrate performance before the prize is awarded, and hence prizes “pay for success.” In doing so, prizes leverage the prize purse into total investments of 10x or greater, attract a large community of solvers, and increase the probability of finding solutions. As a result, prizes and challenges are increasingly being offered by a variety of organizations, from innovative corporations like Google and Virgin, to government and educational institutions like the U.S. Department of Energy, the European Union, and MIT.
We at XPRIZE believe a new type of energy system is possible: one that is sustainable, accessible, reliable, and abundant. Even with the existing sunk costs of energy infrastructure, it is only a matter of time before more efficient, more dynamic, and more sustainable approaches to energy come to the fore. But climate change doesn’t wait for action. To act on climate now, we must embrace today’s tools that accelerate innovation, de-risk opportunities, and leverage diverse investment.
By enlisting the innovators of the world – from scientists to investors, tinkerers to entrepreneurs – we will see breakthroughs that protect our planet, all while empowering billions more people with economic opportunity.