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American Idol Meets Green Technology

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The University of Michigan and DTE Energy sponsor Clean Energy Prize competition to promote sustainable energy technology.In a high tech, low key twist on American Idol, green technology competitions are springing up all over the country.  Among the newer ones is the Clean Energy Prize sponsored by the University of Michigan and DTE Energy, and it offers some clues about the technology stars of the sustainable energy future.  For one thing, they better be prepared to go on stage and pitch their talent – one element of the competition is an oral presentation before a panel of judges.


DTE’s involvement is another interesting aspect of the competition.  A large part of the company is a conventional natural gas utility, Detroit Edison, but an emerging part is DTE Energy Ventures, which focuses on sustainable energy tech.  That puts DTE among a growing list of large energy companies that are turning more investment resources over to sustainable fuels – yet another indicator that peak times for fossil fuels are on the horizon.

The Clean Energy Prize Competition

The competition has already winnowed the starting field of 32 hopefuls down to eight teams from six different Michigan colleges and universities.  The projects include advanced energy storage, services that help consumers manage energy consumption (especially peak demand), kinetic energy for wireless devices, biogas digesters/composters for restaurants, and “green” silane gas production (silane is used in electronics, flat screen displays and solar panels).  Like California’s Cleantech Open, the competition focuses squarely on commercialization.  Advancement in the competition is based on a written business plan, and the prize money is targeted towards jump starting new clean energy businesses.

Conventional Utilities and Emerging Clean Energy

DTE is by no means the first conventional utility to jump from fossil fuels into sustainable energy.  Industry giant Duke Energy already owns more than 700 megawatts of wind power and last year it announced plans to build hundreds of mini-solar energy plants in North Carolina.  Just this month Duke also announced the purchase of a 14 megawatt solar plant that will provide energy for San Antonio, Texas.

Start-Ups and Clean Tech Competitions

Clearly the big players see a potential gold mine in moving away from fossil fuels, and they have the resources to go after it.  The emergence of clean tech competitions helps start-ups get in on the sustainable energy action, providing seed money in the form of prizes or investment opportunities (the ZINO Society is a good example).  They can play an especially important role in developing sustainable technologies that are scaled to individuals and small sites, which are an essential part of the sustainable energy puzzle but may not represent an attractive market for larger companies.

Image: Stage lights by Richard Anderson on

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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