NRG Energy is a massive and diverse power generation company with assets ranging from lignite coal-fired units in Germany to solar generation in California.
Last year, NRG announced it would receive up to $136m from the Department of Energy to build a demonstration carbon capture storage facility southwest of Houston, which will begin operating in 2013.
NRG has earned praise from environmentalists for launching eVgo, America’s first privately funded comprehensive electric vehicle (EV) charging system in Dallas, Texas.
But it has also attracted controversy over a $330m write down after it shelved plans for a new nuclear power plant in south Texas following the Fukushima disaster. NRG recently announced net first quarter losses in 2011 of $260m as a result of the decision.
The company’s chief executive officer, David Crane (above), has been with the company since 2003. He shares his views here on the impact of Fukushima, the transformative effect of EVs and why the US needs a clean energy standard.
What impact did Fukushima have on your south Texas nuclear plant?
When you’re building a nuclear plant that’s not coming online for 5 years and it’s going to be online for 50 -60 years how challenged our plant was going to be was an open question.
But the final nail in the coffin is probably a good way to say it. We did not kill the project but a whole lot of improbable things would have to happen to come together for the project to be resurrected. We would need someone to take our place for future funding because having written off $330 million of shareholders’ money, we’re just not in the position to start writing more checks.
If the whole development process had taken three years instead of five we would be in a very different place and we would be moving forward.
We support the Nuclear Regulatory Commission‘s safety review but the south Texas project is completely different from Fukushima. There is no parallel to it other than they’re both nuclear power plants but there is no earthquake risk, no tsunami risk.
We can’t finalize our projects without knowing what the design is. We can’t finish the design without knowing what the requirements are. When Fukushima hit, 1,000 people were working on this project. And it was costing about $20 million a month. You can imagine not too many companies can sit around and continue to incur the cost of designing something that theoretically might be changed at any moment.
Would you contemplate another nuclear project?
I’m not a big believer that it’s possible to build nuclear plants other than at existing units. So for it’s either south Texas or bust. Having written off $330 million of shareholder money it would have to be a very unusual set of circumstances that would cause us to go down that path.
You recently said that electric vehicles could bring about world peace? Did you mean that literally?
It was intended as a flippant comment. I’m no US national security expert. But Middle Eastern oil has to be the biggest strategic interest of the US government and it’s probably equally so for the Chinese government. Not to mention Europe. So maybe the flippant comment has a grain of truth to it.
I’m not going overboard on this but I think EVs have an enormous ability to change American consumers’ view on sustainability. Unfortunately in our polarized political climate being in favor of sustainability just comes from democratic liberals as opposed to being something that every one should want.
Green consumer products are overwhelmingly typecast as being too expensive, too limited and boring. EVs have the ability to change that because they’re fun, they’re exciting. Their sticker price might be more expensive but when gas is $4-$5 a gallon, the operating costs are so dramatically lower that it’s an appealing package.
If EVs are going to be such a small part of your revenue stream for the foreseeable future, what’s in it for NRG?
This eVgo package is more the point on the spear than the whole spear.
We, in the electric industry, are used to thinking in the very long term, and if America goes towards what I think it should be going towards – which is 100 million EVs – that would make a difference in terms of electricity consumption. Ultimately we sell electricity. While I don’t think it would make an impact for the next five years, certainly over the next 20 or 30 years it could be the best thing that’s happened to our industry since the air conditioner.
It’s dramatically in our company’s interest to try to accelerate this societal trend towards sustainability because once people start to think about their energy use in terms of EVs, they’re going to start thinking about energy use in their home. There are a lot of tie-ins here that we can capitalize on – we’re also big in solar power and there is a lot of connectivity between PV and EV charging.
How important is inclusion of renewables in your portfolio?
Right now it’s a small part of the overall mix. But over time it’s going to be the most important thing – it’s the engine of growth.
There is a view in the oil industry that the US never again will use as much gas as it did. It’s going to be a slowly contracting market for the rest of time. Businesses like to grow but it’s hard to grow when the overall market is narrowing. So the importance of renewables is much greater to us than its current contribution.
Does the US need a clean energy standard and would the US energy sector benefit from a cap and trade scheme?
A clean energy standard is enormously important and it would help a lot because ultimately our industry wants clarity. If they pass a CES with targets at 2035 and 2050 we would know what to build and we’d be off and running. The CES is better than the renewable portfolio standard because it’s a much higher percentage and it allows every part of the country an opportunity to participate. The south and the industrial Midwest fought against the RPS because they don’t have good wind or solar. But they do have nuclear and clean coal.
CEOs of European power companies are saying to their US counterparts why are you guys resisting this [cap and trade]? This is the greatest thing. This is growth, people are going to pay us to change.
Most of your focus is in Texas. Would it be easier run your company in California?
It must be something in the water in Silicon Valley. Our model is to find the innovation there and deploy it in Texas because new energy technology needs to be demonstrated at scale. Deploying things in California is both expensive and difficult in terms of red tape. But that’s our energy innovation scheme – take California ideas and put them in Texas.