Gas Up the DeLorean: 5 Innovators Prove the Future of Clean Energy is Here

Jan 15, 2014

Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox in a scene from Back to the Future (Universal Studios).

Adding gigawatts to the power grid sounds like something out of Back to the Future. But it’s happening—now. Gas up the DeLorean. The future of clean energy is here.

Wind power became the number one source of new electricity generation in the U.S. in 2012, accounting for over 43% of new additions with over 13 gigawatts added to the grid. The Energy Information Administration’s most recent market outlook forecasts consumption of solar and other renewables will grow by 3.6% through 2013. And on the supply side, ongoing debates about the prices of renewables and their inability to compete in the marketplace void of subsidies, hasn't stalled solar or wind developers from growing their footprint. Solar is also scaling up with the industry adding 930 megawatts of new photovoltaic capacity through the third quarter of 2013. Solar now generates over 10,250 megawatts of electricity.

Leading the way in the development of large-scale renewable power sources are ambitious startups churning out outlier technologies that could revolutionize the country's power industry. From cutting-edge solar panels to energy efficient software powered by “green algorithms,” here are five startups developing some of the more promising innovations in cleantech:

Stion — Cheaper than Silicon

The San Jose, CA-based company manufactures photovoltaic (PV) solar panels from sandwiched layers of copper, indium, gallium, selenium and sulfur (CIGS) at a state-of-the-art plant in Mississippi. While CIGS panels are typically less expensive than traditional silicon-based PVs they also don't convert as much solar power into electricity. But Stion's panels and their 13% efficiency rates are nearing those recorded by traditional silicon PVs. Cheaper more efficient solar panels will cut the price of solar and could potentially turn it into a subsidy-free, competitively priced source of renewable power tapped by both residential and industrial customers. 

GlassPoint Solar — Solar-powered Oil Production 
A clean energy venture working with some of the world's largest oil and gas companies is an odd pairing. However, that's exactly what GlassPoint Solar is doing. The Fremont, CA-based company, which counts Royal Dutch Shell as an investor, deploys large mirrors that capture solar energy which is then used to generate steam that's injected in reservoirs to enhance oil recovery. The company's technology is currently pumping out oil from fields in California and Oman.

C3 Energy — Analytics for the Smartgrid 

Launched in 2009 by former Oracle executive and Siebel Systems founder Tom Siebel, C3 Energy harnesses the power of big data to help utilities better manage their smart grid networks. The San Mateo, CA-based company recently developed an analytics tool for Pacific Gas and Electric that crunched 28 billion rows of data by loading up the equivalent of 500 million records an hour. The end result is an energy audit platform that will help PG&E more efficiently manage their smart grid network. 

Ambri — Low-cost Power Storage 
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff, Ambri counts a roster of A-list investors including Vinod Khosla's Khosla Ventures, French oil and gas company Total, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The Cambridge, MA-based company develops low-cost batteries using cheap materials including molten salt and liquid metal, which can efficiently store power tapped from the grid or generated by renewables. Ambri has an operating factory and plans to deploy its first prototype batteries in 2015. 

LanzaTech — Developing Microbial Magic 

Using proprietary microorganisms, LanzaTech turns carbon-laden industrial waste gases into biofuels and other chemical products. Headquartered in Roselle, IL, the company has deployed its technology at two steel mills in China and is looking to apply its conversion process to produce sustainable specialty plastics. 

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