Whether you see it or not, the energy industry is in the midst of an innovation renaissance that could change the way we look at energy for the next decade. The sources of energy that have dominated the world in the 20th century -- oil, coal, and natural gas -- are being challenged by cleaner forms of energy now being installed around the world.
As the future of energy unfolds, here are a few companies to watch.
No company has done more to bring awareness to the future of energy than Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA). The company has almost single-handedly made electric vehicles cool, and the Powerwall and Power Pack announcement brought more hype to energy storage than the industry has ever seen before.
Tesla's electric car ambitions may be the most revolutionary for the future of energy, turning both the oil and auto industries on their heads. When the gigafactory is fully operational in 2020, the company plans to make 500,000 electric vehicles, driving the electric vehicle revolution. Automakers like Ford, General Motors, Audi, and Volkswagen have followed suit, improving range and cost of electric vehicles in this booming market.
The other industry Tesla Motors is building almost from scratch is energy storage. To make solar or wind energy a true base load source of electric power, you need energy storage to fill the times when the sun isn't out, or the wind isn't blowing. The challenge the company faces is figuring out where to put storage, how it will generate revenue, and how to improve performance. If anyone can answer those challenges, it's Elon Musk.
Tesla Motors has set grand plans for electric vehicles and energy storage. Those plans alone make this company an energy innovator to watch.
Solar energy in the U.S. has grown from 382 MW in 2009 to 6.2 GW in 2014, nearly 20 times growth in just five years. One of the leaders in the solar space is SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR), who makes the most efficient solar panels in the world.
SunPower panels are used in everything from tiny solar devices to the largest solar power plants in the world. But SunPower is creating the future of energy through its integration with other technologies that will give us more control over energy than we've ever had before.
Distributed solar systems (think rooftop solar systems on homes or businesses) need an incredible amount of technological advancement to realize their potential. Right now, they're reliant on being able to send electricity to the grid during the day, while the sun is out, and the consumer will then draw electricity at night. In reality, not a lot of the energy produced in a solar home is actually consumed within the home.
But energy storage and smart energy consumption could allow consumers to go off-grid, or at least reduce their reliance on utilities by consuming more energy at home and at times that will save customers money.
SunPower is working with energy storage company Sunverge, demand response company EnerNOC (NASDAQ:ENOC), and data company Tendril to develop the base of data technology needed to allow consumers to gain control of energy. Very soon, residential and commercial customers will be able to install solar panels on their roofs and choose whether they want to consume locally produced energy or lower costs as much as possible.
As SunPower CEO Tom Werner said when I interviewed him last fall, these advancements will allow customers to go from "no control to total control over the next near term, within the next 10 years for sure, and probably the next five years." That's a revolution worth watching.
I know what you're thinking: Apple and energy?
Apple is a company worth watching in the future of energy for two reasons. The first is that it's one of the leaders in building or buying renewable energy for its own operations, proving that renewable energy can power a very large business. The company has built solar parks at data centers and is even building a solar plant in China that will indirectly power suppliers there. Apple is leading changes in the way corporations look at energy, choosing to buy and build its own energy infrastructure instead of relying on utilities. If more companies follow, which I think they will, it will change the way utilities have to do business.
For consumers, Apple is providing the platform with which we'll interact with energy, something we've never done in the past. Along with Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android operating system, Apple's iOS will provide apps that will control when our homes or businesses store energy, when devices like smart appliances use energy, HVAC controls, and even demand response that could provide income to places with energy storage.
Without a way to easily control energy in the future, the advancements companies like Tesla Motors and SunPower are making wouldn't get nearly as much adoption. For that reason, Apple and Google will play very visible roles in the future of energy.
The future of energy is coming, like it or not
Innovations in battery technology, renewable energy, and smart devices are going to drive a lot of change in the future of energy. If the companies creating those innovations are successful, it could upend a multitrillion-dollar energy industry far faster than anyone expects.