Brian Snyder / Reuters People play softball in front of a power plant in Charlestown, Massachussetts, June 2017

The Next Energy Revolution

The Promise and Peril of High-Tech Innovation

The technology revolution has transformed one industry after another, from retail to manufacturing to transportation. Its most far-reaching effects, however, may be playing out in the unlikeliest of places: the traditional industries of oil, gas, and electricity.

Over the past decade, innovation has upended the energy industry. First came the shale revolution. Starting around 2005, companies began to unlock massive new supplies of natural gas, and then oil, from shale basins, thanks to two new technologies: horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (or fracking). Engineers worked out how to drill shafts vertically and then turn their drills sideways to travel along a shale seam; they then blasted the shale with high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals to pry open the rock and allow the hydrocarbons to flow. These technologies have helped drive oil prices down from an all-time high of $145 per barrel in July 2008 to less than a third of that today, and supply has become much more responsive to market conditions, undercutting the ability of OPEC, a group of the world’s major oil-exporting nations, to influence global oil prices.

That was just the beginning. Today, smarter management of complex systems, data analytics, and automation are remaking the industry once again, boosting the productivity and flexibility of energy companies. These changes have begun to transform not only the industries that produce commodities such as oil and gas but also the ways in which companies generate and deliver electric power. A new electricity industry is emerging—one that is more decentralized and consumer-friendly, and able to integrate many different sources of power into highly reliable power grids. In the coming years, these trends are likely to keep energy cheap and plentiful, responsive to market conditions, and more efficient than ever.

But this transition will not be straightforward. It could destabilize countries whose economies depend on revenue from traditional energy sources, such as Russia, the big producers of the Persian Gulf, and Venezuela. It could hurt lower-skilled workers, whose jobs are vulnerable to automation.

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