From refrigeration to iPhones to the very existence of suburbia, the way humans now live requires that energy continue to be ample and easy. Look back 50 or 60 years, before oil embargoes, nuclear disasters, the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon, and climate change becoming a household term, and energy was so simple. The earth had given us abundant coal and oil, which we turned into electricity for our homes or used to power our cars and manufacturing plants, creating an entirely new world.
Energy isn’t like that anymore. Fossil fuels are still abundant, but they now often require new technologies to extract or are tcontaken from regions much more difficult to access, such as the deep sea and the Arctic. We’re far more aware of the environmental costs of energy production, which has led to the development of cleaner options, including solar and wind. And, particularly in the United States, we’ve become locked into battles with one side shouting “Drill, Baby, Drill” and the other envisioning a world where fossil fuels have been completely abandoned. Meanwhile, in developing countries, where 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity and 2.6 billion don’t have clean cooking facilities, many are still struggling to advance beyond wood and charcoal.
For the past couple hundred years, innovation has been the product of the development of new sources of energy. Coal and steam power fueled the Industrial Revolution, and oil gave us the automobile. But to maintain our lifestyle, that innovation must now be applied to energy itself – where it comes from, how we harness it, how efficiently we use it, how we store it, and even how we clean it up. For this special report, “The Future of Energy”, Smithsonian.com has assembled a diverse collection of articles, interviews and interactive features highlighting how people around the world are working to meet the energy challenges of today and inventing the energy of our future.
We look into an Ohio State lab where engineers have developed a method for capturing carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, making “clean coal” no longer an oxymoron. We explore the likely fate of the nuclear power industry in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in Japan. We highlight innovative technologies to generate energy from sewage, bacteria and even gravity. And we take readers on a journey of power plants around the world that they can visit and see for themselves how renewable energy is generated.
What emerges from these stories is that there is no one, clear path to our energy future, only choices, but that’s probably not a negative. As Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the new book, The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future, tells Smithsonian.com, “Options are always good….The more opportunities you have, the more you can do to match your actions with your goals.” Over the next few months, we’ll be bringing you more stories about some of those options.
Sarah Zielinski is a freelance science writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.