Rare are the moments in history when the need for energy innovation has been greater. Roughly 1.3 billion people live without access to electricity, a basic ingredient for economic growth, and twice that number live without access to clean cooking fuel. Meanwhile, American households are spending a greater percentage of their income (4 percent) on gasoline now than they have at any time in nearly 30 years, with the exception of 2008. Political turbulence in the Middle East has fueled a spike in global energy prices. Climate change has brought about warming waters, increasing air temperatures, decreasing water availability, more frequent floods and severe storms. Left unchecked, these trends are expected to intensify, with potentially serious consequences for the energy sector. They have already disrupted fuel supplies and increased the risk of blackouts.
Fortunately, necessity—that ever-loving mother of invention—now has an equal partner in opportunity. Today's engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and big thinkers possess a growing set of tools to transform the energy landscape at a massive scale and are beginning to solve the problems of energy security, sustainability, energy poverty and climate change. Cross-pollination and collaboration across distances is getting easier, and many tools are cheaper than ever.
In this special report, Smithsonian.com takes a look at those tools—robotics, computing power, sensors, advanced materials, 3D printing and more—as well as some of the most promising solutions, moon-shot ideas, leading innovators and the science behind the breakthroughs. Smithsonian.com has assembled a collection of articles, interviews and interactive features highlighting how innovation is unfolding around the world and what it means for our energy future.
We explore the possibilities of a next-generation electric system in Kenya that could skip right over the troubles of fossil fuels and foster a robust low-carbon economy. We highlight companies that are putting robots to work for cheaper renewable energy, and other technologies that are showing that creativity applied to even the most time-tested elements—air, water, gravity, and basic mechanics—can yield important advances for the power grid. And we peek inside the workspaces of a few inventors who paved the way for today’s energy innovators, from physicist Michael Faraday’s laboratory in London to Thomas Alva Edison’s collaborative workspace in rural New Jersey.
As inventor Saul Griffith, founder and CEO of the San Francisco research and development company Otherlab, tells Smithsonian.com, “It’s worth fighting for the world that you would like to create.” Because with enough people fighting on the side of solutions, he says, “Maybe we’ll pull it off.” In the coming months, we’ll bring you more from Griffith and other stories about energy problem solvers and their innovations.
Josie Garthwaite is a freelance science writer and editor based in San Francisco, California.