In quintessence models of dark energy, the observed acceleration of the scale factor is caused by the potential energy of a dynamical field, referred to as quintessence field. Quintessence differs from the cosmological constant in that it can vary in space and time. In order for it not to clump and form structure like matter, the field must be very light so that it has a large Compton wavelength.
No evidence of quintessence is yet available, but it has not been ruled out either. It generally predicts a slightly slower acceleration of the expansion of the universe than the cosmological constant. Some scientists think that the best evidence for quintessence would come from violations of Einstein's equivalence principle and variation of the fundamental constants in space or time. Scalar fields are predicted by the standard model and string theory, but an analogous problem to the cosmological constant problem (or the problem of constructing models of cosmic inflation) occurs: renormalization theory predicts that scalar fields should acquire large masses.
The cosmic coincidence problem asks why the cosmic acceleration began when it did. If cosmic acceleration began earlier in the universe, structures such as galaxies would never have had time to form and life, at least as we know it, would never have had a chance to exist. Proponents of the anthropic principle view this as support for their arguments.
However, many models of quintessence have a so-called tracker behavior, which solves this problem. In these models, the quintessence field has a density which closely tracks (but is less than) the radiation density until matter-radiation equality, which triggers quintessence to start behaving as dark energy, eventually dominating the universe. This naturally sets the low energy scale of the dark energy.
Some special cases of quintessence are phantom energy, in which the energy density of quintessence actually increases with time, and k-essence (short for kinetic quintessence) which has a non-standard form of kinetic energy. They can have unusual properties: phantom energy, for example, can cause a Big Rip.