Race to the Top: Who’s stuck at the bottom?

As a nation, we don’t like to admit that that we pick winners and losers. But we do—and, in most cases, for good reason. Some technologies or programs have a greater probability of success. Sometimes our national priorities change. Sometimes technology breakthroughs or new information comes to light that shift the focus.

If we believe the U.S. needs to significantly increase our investment in clean energy innovation and move the nation to a cleaner, more sustainable, and more prosperous future, I think we need some new thinking.

When the President announced the Race to the Top for energy efficiency and grid modernization programs to mirror the Department of Education program, I thought to myself that the “usual suspects” would win and the other usual suspects would lose. I looked at the Education list and saw that my own state of Virginia is near the bottom. Arlington and Fairfax Counties, however, have some of the best schools in the nation. How can there be such disparity in one state such that both the best and worst schools in the country can coexist?

I think the clean energy situation is not so different.

Depending on the criteria for the contest, some states will have a clear advantage over others–right out of the starting gate. For example, California has multiple policies incentivizing energy efficiency and renewable energy. Some states have no state policies for clean energy. Many probably won’t even submit applications to the Race (as with the Education initiative), in part because they do not have the resources or policies in place to compete.

So, how can we think about this differently? Does it have to be a race?

Do we have to have winners and losers? How about a program that rewards mentoring and learning from each other’s programs—Partnerships for Prosperity—enabling states to learn from each other or even within themselves? We could start a mentoring program between or among states that allows the best lessons to be carried to other areas. For example, North Carolina has a 12.5% renewable portfolio standard. South Carolina has no such policy, yet a dozen hospitals have undertaken major sustainability efforts to reduce energy, water and waste to save money and provide better patient care. Let the Carolinas learn from each other and reap the joint economic and environmental benefits.

Maybe rather than a race to see how great (or far behind) each state is, we devise a rewards system for good ideas. The reward would be funding the implementation of those ideas. We could then keep talented people at work in their own states, teaming with folks from other states to use their ingenuity and create new solutions given regional differences. Part of the reward criteria could even be in the choice of state pairing for collaboration.

Traditional program models like Race to the Top may only reward those who already have the skills, personnel, programs or brain trust (from universities and laboratories) to pursue energy efficiency and grid modernization. Everyone in this country stands to—and should—benefit from these innovations.

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About cleangridview
Smart grid and clean tech policy expert with nearly 30 years of experience with utilities, government, non-profits, and the private sector.

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