Last year a husband and wife team of venture capitalists ponied up the bulk of a $10 million reward for the first successful flight of a privately-built spacecraft. Since then I've been thinking that prizes for alternative energy and environmental fixes might be one way to address problems in those areas. Now, something like this is happening. The National Academy of Engineers is offering a $1 million prize for an inexpensive, small-scale technique for removing arsenic from drinking water.
Admittedly, such prizes would really only focus on technical fixes. Nobody's going to give out a prize for "Best Plan for Getting People to Stop Buying SUVs" or "Best Approach to Convincing People to Live Less Affluently and Be Satisfied with That." But, when it comes to alternative energy, in particular, technical fixes are going to be part of the solution in the short run. How about a prize for building affordable, attractive, compact solar panels for retrofitting historic homes in a way that doesn't ruin their character? How about one for windmills that could be used to power neighborhood-level grids to be constructed and run by neighborhood associations? There are people far more qualified than I who are capable of thinking of discrete projects that would be feasible and have a great deal of impact. Of course, it would be pointless to offer a prize for something that private industry is going to do anyway. So, does anyone have ideas for projects the marketplace won't bother with right now, but that would make a dent in our energy and environmental problems?
(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)