News Story

Local Energy Innovation

May 5, 2014—One lucky community with a population between 5,000 and 250,000 will receive $5 million in 2017 to support sustainable energy-saving innovations, thanks to the creation of the Georgetown University Energy Prize (GUEP).

The prize invites eligible communities to compete with one another to develop and implement plans for replicable, scalable, and continual reductions in the per capita energy consumed from local natural gas and electric utilities.

“Our goal is to transform the way America uses energy, and this is a novel way to do that,” said Francis Slakey, a Georgetown physics professor who co-directs the university’s Program on Science in the Public Interest (SPI).

The SPI program promotes “direct dialogue with the government, industry, and the community on critical scientific issues.” In addition to hosting workshops and a discussion series, SPI offers problem-solving courses—Science and Society: Global Challenges and Shaping National Science Policy—that are designed to encourage undergraduate students to create their own solutions to issues they see in the United States and abroad.

The Georgetown University Energy Prize is an extension of SPI’s mission to incubate new solutions to the critical issues of our time. “Nothing’s been tried at this scale before, but we have an enormous number of cities that are interested,” Slakey continued.

Each community accepted to the competition will be responsible for developing a long-term energy efficiency plan and then demonstrating both its initial effectiveness and its sustainability over a two-year period.

Communities that have signed letters of intent to compete for the GUEP include Bend, Oregon, which hopes to reduce carbon emissions through increased generation of local energy from renewable resources; Fairbanks, Alaska, which has built wind farms for energy efficiency; and Oberlin, Ohio, which, in partnership with Oberlin College, is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the point of being carbon-neutral.

“Today right now in America, we are wasting half the energy that we use,” Slakey said during the launch. “So we’re sitting on this vast reservoir of wasted energy, and we have to mine for efficiency as expertly as we mine for coal, petroleum, or natural gas.”

The competition begins in January 2015, and finalists will be announced in the summer of 2017. Fifty-one communities had already signed letters of intent to participate by the GUEP’s official launch, which included speakers Daniel Poneman, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy; Georgetown President John J. DeGioia; and Ellen S. Alberding, president of the Joyce Foundation.

“We’re excited by the ideas and actions that you will implement and the difference that you will make,” DeGioia said to the competing communities at the launch. “We hope that this competition hosted here at Georgetown will help to provide a context for each of you to achieve the very best results and through your success will set an example for communities around the world to pursue their own energy solutions.”

SPI is leading GUEP with support from the Georgetown University Environment Initiative and the McDonough School of Business’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative. Sponsors and partners outside the university include the U.S. Department of Energy, the Joyce Foundation, the American Gas Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National League of Cities, and Deloitte.

The idea for the competition began on campus with a brainstorming session about how to get more people engaged in energy efficiency, Slakey explained before the launch. SPI invited mayors, state planners, sustainability managers, representatives of utilities, U.S. Department of Energy officials, and others to the session. “The group could have come up with anything,” the physics professor said, “but what popped out of it all was, ‘hold a competition, offer a prize.’”

Each proposal will be judged on its use of best practices, educating the public, and engaging students in energy efficiency issues.

The prize is designed for smaller communities for a good reason, Slakey explained. “Washington, DC, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Boston—all of these cities have active sustainability programs and people assigned to manage them,” he said. However, about 67 percent of the U.S. population lives in communities between 5,000 and 250,000, which also describes nearly 40 state capitals.

“We decided to focus the competition on smaller communities; many of them are using GUEP to get started on energy efficiency.”