Nick Kaloterakis

In the early 1960s, a Soviet astrophysicist, Nikolai Kardashev, was contemplating mysterious radio signals coming from a recently discovered quasar and theorized that they might be evidence of extraterrestrial beings. In 1964, Kardashev debuted a system for categorizing alien civilizations.

Kardashev didn’t make it a question of weaponry or space travel. Instead, he measured these hypothetical civilizations by their command of energy. His scale has three categories.

A Type 1 civilization uses merely all the energy on its planet.

A Type 2 civilization uses all the energy in its star.

A Type 3 civilization, the most advanced, uses as much energy as is in its own galaxy.

Never mind whether judging aliens means one is nuts. (And in his defense, Kardashev is head of the Astro Space Center at the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.) The Kardashev Scale is an elegant way of describing our dreams, and others have seized on it. Carl Sagan went so far as to devise equations that subdivide the categories into a score, presumably to make the scale more useful, or perhaps less depressing. By his math, if a Type 1 civilization commands a planet’s worth of energy, in 1973 we humans rated only a 0.7. The difference between 1 and 2 is a factor of 10 billion.

The scale puts things in perspective. The International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook concluded that by 2035 the shift in oil supply and demand could make the United States a self-sufficient oil economy. This year, Citigroup’s global head of commodities research suggested that in five years we may need to buy oil from only Canada. Happy news!

We decided, as Kardashev might have, that these are only half measures. So for this issue we went about assembling ideas that could truly revolutionize American energy. And I hope the undersea turbines, conical solar installations, and waste-to-energy systems in this issue inspire you. But I also picture Nikolai Kardashev, arms crossed, shaking his head. Because as he articulated so well, we have a long way to go.

–Jacob Ward | @jacobward