The Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Wednesday announced it would offer a $200,000 grand prize for its clean-energy competition (see PDF).

That makes the MIT Clean Energy Entrepreneurship Prize for the best new clean-energy plan the largest business-contest jackpot -- by far -- in the world.

But it's not about the money, said Bill Aulet, senior lecturer and entrepreneur in residence at the Cambridge, Mass., school's Entrepreneurship Center. It's about visibility.

"This is an American Idol opportunity," he said, adding the competition amounts to "one big carrot and one big stage" that should lure entrepreneurs into the clean-energy spotlight.

A national shortage of entrepreneurs with the right skills to turn alternative-energy ideas into viable businesses is the critical "chokepoint" in alternative-energy development, he said.

Organizers of the new national competition hope to reduce that shortage.

The contest, which kicks off in February, is based on the institute's pioneering 18-year-old MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition and its 3-year-old Ignite Clean Energy Competition. In May, it will award as much as $500,000, collectively, in money and support, to the top entrants, with $200,000 in cash to the grand-prize winner.

The top prize beats out that of the current greentech business-plan heavyweight, the California Clean Tech Open (see California Clean Tech Open Winners Score Cash, Services). That contest, which launched last year, awards $50,000 in cash and $50,000 in services to each of its six winners, putting the collective prize pot at a value of $600,000.

But Aulet said MIT's business-plan competition shouldn't be considered a rival to the California Clean Tech Open.

While MIT's competition is intended to be national in scope, it will be more East Coast-centric than California's contest, he said.

David Kirkpatrick, managing director of SJF Ventures in Durham, N.C., called MIT's competition a great idea and said its large prize will encourage innovative ideas to move from early stage to commercialization.

The competition also could bring Massachusetts closer to Gov. Deval Patrick's goal of creating an alternative-energy cluster in the state.

The news comes a month after the New England Clean Energy Council formed to accelerate the clean-energy economy in Massachusetts.