Revolutions In Energy Are Brightening The Future

The energy industry reaches an inflection point

Cliff Ransom, Editor-In-Chief

A few weeks ago, our executive editor forwarded me an invitation to a discussion on the future of energy. From the sound of it, a bunch of engineers were gathering at a local bar to drink beer and delve into the nuances of base loads and grid smoothing. She wrote, “Cliff, this sounds like your idea of a great night out.” She was not being ironic–she was actually right on the mark.

Of the many things I geek out on (and oh, there are many), few are closer to my heart than energy. Steam power sparked the industrial revolution; electricity helped usher in the machine age; and oil and gas make possible our current era of globalization. With every innovation in how we harness and use energy, we, as a civilization, press forward. Which raises the obvious question: What’s next?

Over the past decade, fracking has transformed the oil and gas industries, while solar and wind installations have grown almost exponentially. We now have access to more power, from more sources, than we’ve ever had. At the same time, we’re using energy in new ways. We’re storing it, so we can deploy it more strategically. We’re consuming less of it (at least per capita here in the U.S.), thanks to LEDs and efficient appliances. And we’re connecting it to the Internet, creating a network of smart infrastructure that will one day optimize itself.

It’s as if we spent the past 10 years laying the foundation for a house, and now we’re finally ready to build.

In an industry as stodgy as energy, any one of these developments would be big news. Taken together, they represent a sea change. It’s as if we spent the past 10 years laying the foundation for a house, and now we’re finally ready to build. The developments we’ll see next will be dramatic. This being Popular Science, we couldn’t help but ask who, exactly, will drive them. After months of searching, we settled on 12 names.

The folks in our feature “The New Faces of Energy” work in various fields across the industry, as academics and entrepreneurs (or both). Some make software. Others make batteries. One is even making diesel fuel from discarded plastic–a Spanish factory is already using his method to process 20 tons of waste a day. All together it’s a remarkable group, but more to the point, it’s a glimpse at the future–one, I might add, that’s looking brighter all the time.

This article was originally published in the June 2015 issue of Popular Science.