But back to the 12th century for a moment. The fact is that wind isn't as good a power source as flowing water. It was adequate, barely, for grinding grain; but wind is catch-as-catch-can. Water is steadier, more reliable—especially if there's a millpond upstream to assure a steady supply.
So before history can repeat itself and wind power (or solar power) can once again challenge the established order, whether it be an authoritarian regime in the developing world or a regulated utility in a Western democracy, it needs to be made dispatchable—available on demand. It needs storage.
Cheap large-scale energy storage tied to intermittent renewable generation (industry jargon for wind and solar power) offers two benefits, one relatively benign and the other deeply disruptive:
First, the combination of renewable generation and storage can displace fossil fuel-based generation—taming the unpredictability of renewables puts them on the same footing functionally as, say, a coal plant.
Second, the renewables-plus-storage combination reduces or eliminates the need for a central power grid. Power generation can be distributed and local. The grid reflects the economies of scale and logistics required to generate electricity from fossil fuels; and leading inevitably, like Abbot Samson's water wheel, to monopolistic authority.
But, no one has to deliver the sun or wind to your town or to your campus or business park. Storage changes the balance. It's the key to turning energy from a centrally controlled resource into a distributed asset available to anyone … provided, always provided, that the economics make sense.
Solar, in particular, is cheap and scalable. Storage is still expensive. It has to be half or a third of today's cost to truly enable the disruption that seems tantalizingly close.
(Read more: What Netflix and IBM Can Teach Us About Disruption)
We take for granted now the impact that distributed communications have had via mobile phones. Electrical energy has that same democratizing power. And energy storage, at the right price and scale, has the potential to put that power once again in the hands of this century's Dean Herberts.
—By Steve Crane, co-founder and CEO of LightSail Energy.
LightSail Energy, which is working on an energy storage solution able to convert electrical energy to compressed air, and then reverse the process to deliver electrical energy again when it's needed, was named to the inaugural CNBC Disruptor 50 list.