It’s common today for observers to speculate about how the energy future must look, rather than trying to imagine how it might look. The camp that “proposes” focuses on what governments and bureaucrats could or must force on markets. Meanwhile, imagination is in short supply among the energy punditocracy.

The future that actually unfolds is always shaped by what engineers and entrepreneurs imagine and invent, things that either consume or produce energy. Consider the historical context.

When it comes to energy demand, who in 1919 could have imagined the future that actually unfolded because of technologies only invented a few years before? In the year 1919 there were still roughly as many horses as cars per capita. But 1919 was a full decade into the wildly successful Model T era, and six years after Wright Brothers first flight. A world with far more automobiles and air travel was actually imaginable. But no one at the time foresaw the extent of the energy-consuming road-miles and air-miles to come, now counted in trillions per year.

And, regarding energy production, by 1919 the age of petroleum (which really did save the whales) was already a half-century old; global production had soared over 20-fold from early days. Consequently, 1919 saw the rise of the ‘industry’ of experts predicting peak oil supply. But innovators created a future that would see production rise by over 80-fold from that point. Some of the key technologies that enabled that growth had already been invented by 1919: the Hughes drill bit, patented in 1909, radically accelerated both speed and depth of drilling; the first off-shore platform, opening up vast new territories, had been built 20 years earlier; and scientists were toying with subsurface seismic imaging (1917 saw the first seismograph patent by Canadian Reginald Fessenden) to take the “wild” out of “wildcatters” drilling blindly…

Now, turning to the supply side of the energy equation: Since the world will need hydrocarbons for a long time yet, and because most forecasts focus on the future of alternative energy, let’s instead consider a half-dozen emerging technologies that might have impacts on hydrocarbon supply equivalent to the development of the Hughes drill bit, seismic imaging, or the offshore platform circa 1919…

Hughes’ Bit 2.0 –The invention of the original (1919) Hughes’ drill bit immediately increased drilling speed through rock by six-fold (thereby reducing drilling costs at that time by 75%). Since then, descendant improvements have seen drilling speeds continue to increase. Computationally-designed alloys and chemicals that lead to tougher drill bits and superior well-boring fluids (that lubricate and carry away crushed rock) will continue that trend. And then, soon to see commercialization are rock-drilling high-power lasers pioneered by Foro which, like Hughes, is a U.S. company. Lasers will open a path to a Hughes-like jump in drilling speed and concomitantly radically reduce the power needed to drill.