Challenging Conventional Thinking About New Jersey’s Power Sector

Former NRG CEO David Crane continues to refine his unique perspective on global warming, solar power, electric vehicles and nuclear energy

David Crane
For a longtime energy executive, David Crane has an unconventional perspective on the issues the industry faces, including how to deal with climate change.

A well-known maverick in the sector, Crane helped transform Princeton-based NRG Energy. Steering the independent power producer as it emerged from bankruptcy, he broadened its portfolio to include solar, wind, and natural gas while launching an initiative to build the infrastructure for electric vehicles.

For his efforts, he was fired this past December after 12 years at NRG, a casualty of a steep drop in the price of the company’s shares amid a precipitous drop in power prices. Last night at The Watershed Center in Pennington, Crane shared his thoughts on where the sector is heading as the nation and world struggle with slowing down global warming.

His program for climate change focuses on some of the same issues he addressed at NRG. Item No. 1: Put solar panels on every flat roof hit by the sun, including 55 million private homes in the U.S.; 3 million warehouses’ and over every major parking lot.

At NRG, solar became an important part of the company’s energy portfolio with utility-scale projects developed around the country. It put solar arrays on football arenas, a strategy Crane said he hoped would spark greater interest in the technology.

A second priority would be to electrify the transportation sector, one of the largest sources of greenhouse-gas emissions. Every second car in the country should be a battery vehicle, Crane said.

NRG is installing electric vehicle-charging stations in urban centers in Texas and California, a policy aimed at dealing with one of the biggest hurdles to acceptance of the technology — range anxiety among motorists.

For the 1.5 billion people in the world without access to electricity, two-thirds of them in Africa, Crane would encourage the building of distributed solar and other locally-based energy facilities as another priority.

Crane would shy away from adopting the model used in the U.S for more than a century with centralized power plants delivering electricity to homes over miles of poles and wires. He has said the existing utility system is in a death spiral as new forms of distributed power erode its business model, making “grid power more and more expensive.’’

The fourth need is to develop workable technology to capture carbon from existing power plants that emit pollution contributing to climate change, a program the government must get behind, according to Crane. NRG’s own effort to develop such a system was unsuccessful.

As for nuclear energy, it is part of NRG’s portfolio. “I’m a big believer if you really care about climate change, you have to have nuclear,’’ Crane said. At the same time, nuclear is not well positioned to flourish.

“There is not going to be new nuclear in the U.S. for another generation,’’ Crane said, citing the lack of support across a wide spectrum of interests.

Crane was more optimistic about natural gas, saying it can serve as a bridge fuel until large-scale energy storage solves the problem of the intermittency of renewables, like solar and wind. But he cautioned large-scale energy storage is still a long way off from becoming viable.

The event was sponsored by C-Change Conversations, a Princeton-based nonprofit, which promotes nonpartisan dialogue on climate change.