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A Noble Prize for the 21st Century

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Nobel Prizes have been controversial lately -- President Obama in 2009 and Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010 come to mind -- but there is a relatively new prize that will likely earn positive global reviews this month for its recognition of something unquestionably "noble."

The Zayed Future Energy Prize offers $2.2 million of awards in the category of clean, sustainable energy recognizing individuals, non-profits, and companies that are doing the most to commercialize and distribute renewable energy to replace fossil fuels and cut pollution. There are two remarkable things about this prize -- it is sponsored by an oil-rich government in the Middle East and the six finalists in 2011 include this author.

Yes, I was humbled to be nominated for the prize that was awarded January 18, possibly to join the company of the first winner of the prize in 2009, Dipal Chandra Barua. Barua was honored for bringing renewable energy to more than two million people in rural communities of Bangladesh. In 2010, Toyota was honored for its groundbreaking innovations in efficient transportation and alternative fuels like hydrogen fuel cells.

In 2011, the finalists include the MacArthur "genius" award-winning Amory Lovins for his cutting-edge work on designing energy-efficient buildings; the Barefoot College, India's only institution that runs entirely on solar power and provides it to low-income families across the country; Arizona's First Solar, the fastest-growing solar panel manufacturer in the world; the New Jersey-based investment firm E+Co, which supports clean energy development projects throughout the developing world; and Denmark's Vestas, the world's largest manufacturer of wind turbines.

Although I am still uncertain how my work to make California a leader in energy efficiency and renewable energy commercialization ranks with those luminaires, I'm more mystified by the fact that the heart of the Middle Eastern oil patch is promoting a quicker end of fossil fuel use. Abu Dhabi is one of the seven United Arab Emirates and has sponsored Masdar, a sustainable city rising from the desert to prove that zero-waste and zero carbon emissions are possible in a modern metropolis. Masdar, which also sponsors the annual World Future Energy Summit, is becoming a global proving ground for clean energy technologies and green urban development that will help to commercialize those designs and products for everyone to use, and the Zayed Future Energy Prize is meant to recognize those who are contributing to that vision.

But why would Abu Dhabi and Masdar do this, given that their wealth comes from oil? Because their leaders have recognized that oil is running out, the world is running out of a healthy atmosphere, and the geopolitics of oil are equally unsustainable for much longer. Those leaders, beginning with Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the late ruler of Abu Dhabi and the founder of the United Arab Emirates, wisely want to leverage their current wealth into long-term growth and sustainability for their people and an energy-hungry world.

Compare this to US leadership, which in the last decade has provided expanded subsidies for oil and coal; a trillion dollar war in Iraq to save a nickel on a gallon of gasoline in the American heartland; and a breathtaking opposition to shouldering our fair share of responsibility for climate change and air pollution.

Of course solving the global energy and climate change challenges will demand that everyone make a contribution, not just wait for a new miracle technology or for the UN to replace the Kyoto Protocol with something more effective. Individual commitment matters, regardless of whether you have the wealth to sponsor a prestigious prize or just enough to swap your SUV for a Prius. Hopefully the individuals recognized by the Zayed Prize in 2011, myself included, demonstrate that we can all take action and aspire to something "noble".

The founder of OPEC, Sheikh Yamani, famously said that the Stone Age didn't end for a lack of stones and the oil age won't end for a lack of oil. It will end out of environmental and economic necessity and a dose of enlightened vision and leadership. The nominees for the Zayed Future Energy Prize won't solve the world's dependence on polluting and limited fossil fuels alone, but at least they are focused on the key word in the prize's title -- future -- in innovative and inspiring ways that all of us must learn from to make the world safer, cleaner, and more sustainable.

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