July 24, 2009

In 1996, Dr. Peter Diamandis, Amir and Anousheh Ansari and others established a competition to create a private vehicle capable of space flight.  The idea was to encourage the private sector involvement in the space industry; thus, the entries were not allowed to have any government funding.  Ultimately, 26 international teams competed for the $10 million Ansari X-Prize for successfully launching a manned vehicle into low earth orbit.  In 2004, the prize was awarded to a team headed by aerospace engineer and inventor Burt Rutan and funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen.

Since then:

  • The X-Prize Foundation was formed to fund innovation through competition in a number of fields; the Foundation has already established a competition for a vehicle that gets the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon of gasoline, with the ultimate goal of developing an affordable, mass-produced passenger vehicle.
  • Similarly, billionaire Richard Branson is offering a $25 million prize to anyone who can devise a technology that can remove 1 billion tons of CO2 (or an equivalent amount of other greenhouse gases) from the atmosphere, for 10 consecutive years.

The federal government should follow the X-Prize model and support a competition to create various technologies that meet the twin goals of using energy more efficiently while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, says H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

For instance:

  • The government could establish a prize for manufacturing an affordable hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered vehicle for about the same price as a traditional sedan of comparable power, comfort and passenger load.
  • Or the government could establish a prize for the first commercially viable hybrid electric vehicle that could generate power for the electric grid when not in use.
  • The government could also establish a prize for technologies that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere before or after they are emitted.
  • Contests could be established to encourage the development of batteries that store power from renewable power sources for use when they are off line.

The competitions are only limited by human imagination and foresight regarding what might be needed to transform the world's energy use, says Burnett.

Source: H. Sterling Burnett, "Starting the Energy Technology Revolution Through Competition," National Center for Policy Analysis, Brief Analysis No. 666, July 23, 2009.

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