We've seen the future and it's sustainable: Stanford University

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What a difference a decade makes.

Back in 2004, car aficionados would have scoffed at the notion of an electric vehicle (EV) as the top-selling luxury car in California. But less than 10 years later, Telsa Motors, a company barely 10 years old, achieved that feat.

The variety of electric vehicles (EVs) available to consumers today, from the Chevrolet Volt to the Nissan Leaf, would have been unimaginable in 2004.

The emergence of a viable EV industry over the past decade mirrors the remarkable growth in renewable energy across the globe. The numbers are impressive. Since 2004, the installed capacity of solar photovoltaics worldwide has skyrocketed from about 4 gigawatts to more than 137 GW, while the installed wind capacity has jumped from 48 GW to 318 GW.

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Today, Germany gets approximately 7 percent of its electricity from wind turbines. In Iowa and South Dakota, wind power alone accounts for more than a quarter of total electricity production. Meanwhile, the price of renewable energy has fallen dramatically since 2004. In some places today, solar- and wind-generated electricity is cost-competitive with electricity that consumers can buy from the grid.

A decade ago, our natural gas industry was stagnating. Today, through major advances in well drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the U.S. is producing more gas than ever, and idle import terminals are being retooled to export liquefied natural gas. Utilities have been switching from coal to gas to produce electricity, contributing to the lowest CO2 emissions we have had since 1994.

All of this should come as welcome news to anyone concerned about climate change and sustainable energy. The back-story on this major transformation of our energy system is that the investment in energy research and development spurred by the 1970s OPEC oil crisis is paying off.

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Back then, industry and governments alike supported a wide portfolio of options to increase energy security and reduce pollution, including solar photovoltaics, wind turbines, geothermal energy and unconventional natural gas.

In the intervening years, as energy prices stabilized, the world took its eye off the ball. Energy research languished for more than a decade. But all that is changing. Now, energy technologies developed decades ago are making in-roads into our energy system, providing more secure, efficient and environmentally sustainable options. As industries ramp up, costs are dropping even more quickly than expected.

Through cutting-edge government programs, large investments by the venture community and corporations, and innovative university-industry collaborations, such as the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford, the pipeline of new energy innovations is once again full. In fact, academia and industry are working closer than ever to accelerate the commercialization of a whole new generation of game-changing technologies.

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In the coming years we can expect big improvements in batteries for automobiles and the electrical grid, much more efficient engines, more affordable solar photovoltaics, better fuel cells, and technologies that dramatically reduce emissions from natural gas- and coal-fired power plants. Looking further to the future: Imagine an electric vehicle that can charge itself while driving down the road, or clean and renewable fuels made from sunlight, or novel energy supplies that actually remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Our energy future is bright, but let's not take our eye off the ball again. This century, the global energy system may double in size as developing countries grow and prosper. The scale of this challenge is daunting, and industry know-how is essential to bring new sustainable energy technologies to market. This, indeed, is the opportunity and challenge of the century.

Sally M. Benson is a professor of energy resources engineering and the director of the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) at Stanford University.

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