Can challenges or prize competitions solve water supply problems?

Monday, March 26, 2018

How can challenges or prize competitions help society address barriers that may prevent long-term access to low-cost water supplies?

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) has published a Request for Information, seeking information from the public to understand the key technical and other barriers that may prevent long-term access to low-cost water supplies that could be best addressed through challenges and prize competitions.

Water is essential for human health, economic growth, and agricultural productivity, and plays significant roles in the U.S. energy sector. The Department of Energy uses the term "energy-water nexus" to describe the interconnected nature of energy and water systems. While the U.S. has generally benefited from access to low-cost water supplies, according to the Energy Department, "new challenges are emerging that, if left unaddressed, could threaten this paradigm" including competing uses and water quality problems.

The Energy Department operates a variety of programs to advance domestic energy policy, including programs focused on research and development and grant funding. But could the Department of Energy be more effective by offering challenges or prize competitions? Unlike traditional R&D funding in which participants are selected up front with funding provided at the beginning in order to pursue a target or goal, challenges and prize competitions typically define a problem and offer a reward to anyone finding a solution.

Challenges and prize competitions have been adopted by the federal government as well as private actors. Since 2010, federal entities have awarded millions of dollars in prize money and other incentives through over 740 challenges and prize competitions, and nonprofits and private companies have launched many more.

In a Request for Information published in the Federal Register on March 19, 2018, the Energy Department identified challenges and prize competitions as "tools and approaches the Federal government and others can use to engage a broad range of stakeholders, including the general public, to develop solutions to difficult problems. Challenges and prize competitions rely on competitive structures to drive innovation among participants and usually offer rewards (financial and/or other) to winners and/or finalists."

Through the request, the Energy Department asks for public feedback on a variety of issues relating to using prizes and challenges to solve problems around the energy-water nexus, including an identification of challenges whose solution would allow for a significant increase in the volume of available water produced from non-traditional sources, significant improvements in industrial and power-sector water efficiency, or reductions in the cost to treat and deliver drinking water and wastewater to consumers without harming water quality.

Responses to the Request for Information are due no later than 5:00 p.m. (ET) on May 14, 2018.

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