SMOKINCHOICES (and other musings)

December 9, 2014

CEO Crane fights ‘climate-change’

 Power-company CEO fights climate change

Commentary

Joe Nocera

Since the early 1990s, the consensus view in the climate-science community has been that if the world is going to escape the most catastrophic consequences of climate change, it needs to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels. A few years ago, the Presidential Climate Action Project issued a report in which it estimated that to meet that goal, global carbon-dioxide emissions would need to be reduced by 60 percent by 2050 — and the industrialized world would need to reduce its emissions by 80 percent.
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This would seem, at first glance, an impossible task. Until, that is, you meet a man named David Crane. He is the chief executive of NRG Energy, the largest publicly traded independent power producer in the country. When he took over a decade ago, NRG was just emerging from bankruptcy. Today, it is a Fortune 250 company, with 135 power plants capable of generating 53,000 megawatts of power.
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NRG, Crane told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer, is the country’s fourth-largest polluter.“We emit 60 or 70 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year,” he said, mainly because a third of its power is generated by coal-fired plants.  “I’m not apologetic about that because, right now, owning those plants and operating those plants are critical to keeping the lights on in the United States.”
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But then he quickly added, “We have to move away from that.” And he has, reducing the company’s carbon footprint by 40 percent in the decade that he’s run the company. And, last Thursday, as The New York Times reported, he committed NRG to reducing its carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050.
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These are terribly ambitious goals, but Crane is not some pie-in-the-sky dreamer. Although he sees climate change as an “intergenerational issue” — a way of ensuring the future for our children and grandchildren — he is also a pragmatic man running a publicly traded company. He firmly believes that the technology exists to make his ambitious goals possible, and that the real problem is the refusal of the rest of the power industry to adapt and change.
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Crane likes to say that when he first started hearing about carbon emissions, he didn’t view it all that seriously.“To be frank,” he said in that same Aspen presentation, “I thought this is just the next pollutant that we have to deal with.”But once he got religion — and realized, as he put it, that power producers such as NRG are “the biggest part of the problem” — he was determined to make his company a leader in reducing carbon.
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One of his early moves was to apply for a license to build a new nuclear-power plant. (It already co-owns one nuclear plant.) But the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011 ruined those plans, and NRG wound up writing off more than $300 million. NRG also invested in a wind company, which it sold three years later “because we got a little disenchanted with the way that the wind technology was moving.”
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So how is he planning to get that 90 percent reduction? One answer is solar power, in which NRG has invested some $5 billion. Crane is a big believer in the eventual importance of solar, both for consumers — he foresees a day when millions of Americans rely on solar as their primary power source — and for power companies. Even so, Crane told me that solar generates only 3,000 megawatts of the company’s potential for 53,000.

  • And then there’s coal. When I asked Crane if he would have to eliminate coal to reach his goals, he said no. Coal, he said, will continue to play a big role. A carbon tax would be a great way of reducing emissions. But that is politically impossible.

So, instead, the carbon will need to be captured and then put to some good use. At one of its Texas power plants, NRG is teaming with JX Nippon of Japan in a $1 billion joint venture to build a carbon-capturing capacity, which it expects will capture 1.6 million tons of carbon each year — some 90 percent of the plant’s emissions. He is also convinced that that carbon eventually will be used to create liquid fuel or get embedded in cement.  (see post of 11-30-14, on “Toyota’s  Mirai, fuel-cell car”)    
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“We could rebuild America’s roadways with embedded carbon from coal,” Crane said.He has another reason for wanting to be out in front on climate change. He says it will make his company more attractive to investors — and consumers.
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“It’s like Wayne Gretzky said,” he told me before hanging up the phone.
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“We are skating where the puck is going, rather than where it is now.”

Joe Nocera writes for The New York Times.

(Doesn’t this make you want to grin with pleasure, we’re living in some pretty spectacular times.  . .Jan)

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