Closeup of exposed light bulb hanging from ceiling.

With Google now getting 100 percent of its electricity from alternative energy, and New York shooting for 50 percent statewide by 2030, maybe “alternative” isn’t the right word anymore.

The Advanced Energy Economy (AEE), a U.S. organization of energy professionals, recently issued its 2017 market report, suggesting the country’s investments in sustainability last year are creating major growth in the advanced energy sector. This includes “a broad range of technologies, products and services that constitute the best available technologies for meeting energy needs today and tomorrow.”

Electricity generation, one of the sector’s growth areas, surpassed $50 billion worth of innovations as businesses nationwide turn to solar, geothermal, biomass and other “alternative” sources of power. But with these new solutions no longer just on the country’s periphery, there’s a new generation of fringe technologies poised for growth. Per AEE’s report, here are three to watch out for this year:


Building efficiency is a growth area that comprises nearly $69 billion in revenue from the U.S.’s energy advancements over the last year, driven in part by the incentives available to building owners who invest in more efficient lighting. LEED certification, which signifies Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, encourages the use of light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs to reduce a building’s power consumption, but these products have inspired a host of other money-saving solutions. Light is no longer just a utility.

Lighting-as-a-Service (LaaS) is the “third-party management of lighting systems, which may include additional technical, maintenance, financial, or other services,” according to AEE. It starts with an LED bulb, but it’s an industry born out of the digital platforms that now use Internet of Things (IoT) technology to better manage lights’ energy consumption. Using low-cost sensors designed to gather the data, buildings can now use these services to design lighting systems around budgetary constraints, room activity, time of day, lumens in the sunlight, among other things.

Autonomous Commercial Vehicles

Advanced transportation — another growth area — made just under $22 billion in the U.S. last year, helping crown it the second-largest segment of energy innovation worldwide. One reason is because more electric cars are being purchased, but the chief reason is because more ride-sharing is being purchased.

As commercial transit takes up a bigger share of the road, these trips need to become better, more cost-efficient experiences. And since North American GPS satellite systems and RFID data analysis can now say precisely where items are in transit (and when they’d reach their destination), self-driving technology has a practical and ecological role to play.

While private car-owners may take longer to trust an autonomous vehicle, many transportation services stand to benefit from the cost savings of going driverless. Autonomous commercial vehicles can also make it easier for companies to reach customers in a timely manner, limiting the number of cars on the road and optimizing their use of fuel over the long term. Trucking companies are particularly interested; Anheuser-Busch recently worked with Uber and Otto, a company specializing in self-driving 18-wheelers, on a 120-mile beer shipment last spring. Check it out:

Virtual Power Plants

The delivery and management of electricity brought in $19 billion as a growth area during 2016, mainly because new technology is making it so easy to deliver and manage. Smart grids and other independent microgrids collect energy from so many renewable sources that some communities are being smarter with where and how they construct physical power plants. In other areas, they’re going virtual.

A virtual power plant (VPP) can distribute energy from a variety of clean power sources into an electrical network, and like LaaS, this energy is managed through a remote platform. Most renewable solutions don’t need physical facilities beyond the turbines, panels or module used to collect power through the environment. VPP suppliers coordinate with brick-and-mortar facilities to retail this energy over the internet throughout a city, building or neighborhood, using software to strengthen urban resiliency in the face of natural disasters.

Each of these technologies may see gradual adoption, but it’ll take time for demand to catch up to their value. LED lighting is increasing in lifespan, but LaaS will need to navigate falling bulb prices. Self-driving cars are predicted to reduce accidents, but customers may initially prefer “levels” of autonomy that keep humans behind the wheel. Solar and wind may not require full power plants to create electricity, but VPPs may be better off as supplements to a larger utility system — one that needs a physical facility to deliver clean energy to vast numbers of people in diverse environments.

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