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The World's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies of 2015 in Energy

From harnessing the African sun to filtering CO2 out of the atmosphere, the companies and products transforming how we consume energy.

[Photo: Flickr user Ramanathan Kathiresan]

1. Cree

For light bulbs that live longer and help our planet stay healthier. In just two years, the North Carolina-based manufacturer has moved from supplying components to many of the world’s leading lighting companies to becoming the foremost brand of consumer LED bulbs in the United States. Some of Cree’s growth is owed to Home Depot, which took a gamble on the company’s energy-efficient designs and pushed them into its nationwide network of hardware stores. But the rest is due to Cree’s uncanny ability to create quality, sophisticated bulbs that can last more than a decade and are sold at price points once deemed unthinkable (recently, $9.97 for a 60-watt-equivalent bulb that uses just 9.5 watts). That’s why escalating sales of LEDs mean more than just success for Cree and Home Depot. Consumers—who can now buy bulbs with epic lifespans that use little power, save them money in the long run, and reduce carbon emissions—win big, too.
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2. SolarCity

For making solar an easier option. Solar City continues to demonstrate that innovation and success in clean energy isn’t only about product—it’s about having a limber business model, too. Sibling founders Lyndon and Peter Rive (backed by company chairman—and the brothers’ cousin—Elon Musk) are building the country’s premier solar services company. You order the panels; they finance and install them. The no-fuss approach explains why Solar City’s growth has only accelerated in the past year, with nearly 200,000 customers (including a slew of large companies and military bases) now tapping their service. In 2014, the company acquired solar module maker Silevo, and is building an enormous production facility in Buffalo, New York. When the plant comes online in 2017, it will be the largest in the U.S., giving Solar City not only a reliable supplier, but new capabilities for cost reductions and vertical integration.

3. Trevi Systems

For a low-energy way to clean our water. With droughts wracking California and much of the American southwest, desalination systems—plants that separate brine from brackish water and direct the resulting freshwater into municipal pipes or to farm irrigation—have never had more appeal. The big problem? Desalination is energy-intensive and expensive, in large part because it relies on reverse-osmosis technologies that pump salty water through filters at extremely high pressure. Trevi’s technology utilizes a different idea: forward osmosis, which capitalizes on the natural physical properties of water to separate out the salts, and thus eschews the high-pressure process. In short, Trevi’s novel technology aims to save energy and money, and explains why the company beat out more than a dozen others this year for a contract to help build a forward-osmosis desalination pilot plant in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.

4. Airlight Energy

For amplifying the sun. Last year, the Swiss-based solar company Airlight Energy struck an agreement with IBM to utilize Big Blue’s technologies and begin deploying what they call "sunflowers"—or what are officially known as High Concentration Photovoltaic Thermal systems. Resembling mirrored satellite dishes, the 33-foot tall devices concentrate the sun’s energy by 2,000 times and thereby generate enough electricity to power several homes. Importantly, the systems can also be configured to purify water and provide heat or cooling to a home, making the technology a potential "drop-in" solution to off-grid locations like rural hospitals or settlements in emerging economies.

5. Inertech

For keeping data-center temperatures, and energy costs, low. Data centers have never been the sexiest part of the Internet—out of sight, out of mind. Yet big servers rely on power-hungry cooling systems to keep them humming, which makes them among the most energy-intensive aspects of the digital business. By some estimates, servers now consume about 2% of global electricity. Inertech, in conjunction with the global construction firm Skanska, has a cooling system that may significantly reduce the power demands of server farms. Last year in British Columbia, the firm outfitted a data center for the Canadian telecom company Telus that uses about 80 percent less electricity than a typical data center.

6. Azuri Technologies

For harnessing the African sun to help those off the grid. Nowhere is the potential of solar power brighter than in Africa, where hundreds of millions of people have poor grid connections—or no electricity at all. Azuri’s "Paygo" system allows rural residents to pay small monthly installments for a solar panel that can generate enough electricity for two lights and a mobile phone. But Azuri also offers a path to more power, too. Once a panel is paid off, users can either keep the system or upgrade to a larger one that can sustain more lights, a radio, or television. The implications could be significant: Easy access to electricity and light, no time or money wasted to buy kerosene fuel, and no dangerous indoor fumes.

7. Aquion Energy

For storing up energy for a rainy (or windless) day. One weakness of renewable power sources like solar and wind are their intermittency—the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow. Acquion, a battery startup hatched out of Carnegie Mellon that began shipping its product late last year, taps a novel chemistry that utilizes saltwater and manganese. The result is cheap, long-lasting power storage for clean-energy microgrids, so that surplus energy generated during sunny days, or during windy nights, can be stored for periods of slack production. Acquion’s batteries aren’t pretty—picture big, bulky, black boxes—but they’re durable and have demonstrated an impressive storage capacity. Best of all, they use nontoxic materials and (unlike Lithium-based batteries) won’t overheat.

8. 1366 Technologies

For boosting the potential of solar energy by reducing the cost of its panels. The Bedford, Massachusetts, manufacturer—its name derives from the amount of solar energy that on average hits a square meter of the earth’s surface—is attempting to revolutionize the production of solar wafers, the active component (and main expense) in solar PV panels. "We are inventing a new process," asserts CEO Frank van Mierlo, "that will make solar cheaper than coal." By using novel production methods that fabricate the wafers through a one-step process—and avoid the laborious sawing, grinding, and polishing that characterizes their typical production—1366 believes it can ultimately reduce the costs of PV wafers by as much 50%. This year the company intends to prove its mettle, as it moves beyond a demonstration plant in Bedford and breaks ground for a full-scale manufacturing plant.

9. Simply Grid

For taking the electricity grid outdoors. Hot trucks and food carts need power too—and grid power is better (and cleaner) than the dirty, noisy gas generators that vendors tend to rely upon. Enter Simply Grid, which builds plug-in power pedestals and makes them available to food vendors at sidewalk locations. Currently being tested in Manhattan’s Union Square, and soon to be rolled out around the city, the device seems simple. A vendor pulls up to a pedestal; he or she sends a text message that includes the outlet code; the electricity is turned on via the cloud; and Simply Grid bills the vendor for their usage time. The upside is that a vendor can run a fridge, blender, and food processor cheaper as well as cleaner. The company, now part of MOVE Systems, ultimately intends to go beyond the mobile-food scene. By providing on-demand power to idling delivery trucks and emergency vehicles, it hopes to clean up—and quiet down—the urban atmosphere.

10. Global Thermostat

For addressing global warming by grabbing carbon dioxide out of the air. Our energy-intensive western lifestyle comes with a hefty price: To generate most of our electricity we burn fossil fuels, a process that pumps billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year. That CO2, in turn, helps warm the atmosphere (and explains why 2014 was the hottest year on record). Global Thermostat has a fix: filter air through devices that capture the CO2 with a chemical scrubber. The greenhouse gas can then either be stored deep underground or be used for industrial processes, synthetic fuels—even for growing algae. For the past year, the company has been demonstrating its technology in Menlo Park, California, but in 2015 it intends to begin shipping devices to paying clients.