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Zayed Future Energy Prize sends a message to the transport sector

Taken at face value, the news that the winner of the Zayed Future Energy Prize 2010 (and with it a cool US$1.5 million) is Japanese car manufacture Toyota for its groundbreaking third generation Prius may raise a few initial eyebrows. But the message it sends is an interesting one.

There's no doubting the fact that this is a departure from last year, when the inaugural winner was Mr. Dipal Barua, who won the prize for developing and implementing energy solutions for the rural population of Bangladesh - through an ambitious program where more than 200,000 solar home systems were installed to bring renewable energy to more than 2 million rural people in off-grid areas of Bangladesh.

Nobody is denying the genius behind the car of course. Far from it. The Prius has already garnered its fair share of critical acclaim over the last few years, and Toyota’s efforts to develop the most fuel efficient vehicle on the planet continues apace with its third generation version which experts say is cheaper than the second generation with improved fuel efficiency to boot. And the whole Prius concept has now been credited with it’s own buzz phrase – the “Prius effect” – where people take ownership of the sustainability measures available to them (i.e. many Prius car drivers say they drive differently to enhance the vehicle’s own fuel efficiency, which can be seen as a metaphor for individuals taking ownership of their energy useage - in a similar way to how many envisage the Smart Grid working).

But some will ask the question why Toyota needed to win this award. Shouldn’t the money have gone to a more similar venture as last year?

The other two finalists were IDEI – which provides low-cost irrigation technology to farmers in India. The technology has been designed for small-scale farmers, rather than commercial entities, with over one million smallholders in India having invested in the energy-saving systems to date. This has resulted in over 500 million litres of diesel being saved, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 1.8 million tonnes. And then there’s Zhengrong Shi, founder and CEO of Suntech Power Holdings Company, who established Suntech in September 2001 and has since seen it grow to become the world's largest manufacturer of silicon solar modules.

Even though these other two finalists still bagged US$350,000 each, either could easily have won the main prize over Toyota. IDEI is a similar entry to last year’s eventual winner. And as the common wisdom is that a doubling in the cumulative installed capacity of PV modules reduces the price of PV by 20%, awarding the prize to Suntech for its contribution towards the “grid parity” goal of solar would have made sense.

So that leaves the question: what was the message behind this win?

As well as raising the profile of the Zayed Future Energy Prize, chairman of the Jury, the eminent Dr. R.K. Pachauri, acknowledged the difficulty of the decision, but explained that the award to Toyota was about more than just the technology, rather “the approach of the company to bring about a radical shift in approach (not only in technology).” He maintains that this fact deserves the “fullest appreciation”…and the jury are hoping that the recognition this brings will be an inspiration to other [car] manufacturers too.

There is no getting away from the fact the transport sector requires some major innovation in sustainability, over and above the token efforts of some. Toyota have shown that this is possible, and it’s to be hoped that this award can really push the rest of the industry in the same direction, at a similar speed. 

Posted 20/01/2010 by David Hopwood

Tagged under: WFES , Toyota Prius , Zayed Future Energy Prize

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