Energy Company Exec: Big Solar is 'Idiotic'

NRG's David Crane | Photo: Fortune Live Media/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Follow the energy industry long enough and you learn that certain people in that industry usually have things to say that are both interesting and entertaining. NRG Energy's CEO David Crane is one of those people. At an energy summit this week in New York, Crane lauded distributed solar power, calling the trend toward larger solar installations "idiotic."

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Crane's remarks at Bloomberg New Energy Finance's Future of Energy summit, held April 22-24 in New York, are a little surprising: his firm NRG is an owner of the 370-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System being built by BrightSource Energy in the Mojave Desert. But according to Peter Maloney, who reported Crane's remarks this week at Platts, Crane's much more enamored of small-scale solar, both residential and larger distributed installations and smaller utility-scale projects. All told, NRG has about 2,000 megawatts of small-scale solar projects in its development pipeline.

Crane's no stranger to provocative public pronouncements, as we've mentioned here before: he's upfront among energy company executives in forecasting the eventual extinction of investor-owned utilities, and has spoken out in the past about the importance of rooftop solar, long before even some environmental activists were willing to concede that utility-scale solar on public lands might not be the most efficient or effective way of getting off the fossil fuel treadmill.

Crane continued his riff on endangered utilities at the Bloomberg conference, according to Maloney:

"Over the next year or two the natural gas industry is going to figure out how to disintermediate the electric power business," Crane told the audience. There are 34 million households tied to the natural gas grid, Crane said, arguing that they are all candidates for micro turbines or fuel cells in their basements that could be programmed to kick on when the sun sets on the solar panels on the roof. The combination of solar and gas generation in a single distributed location also would provide economies of scale for providing the support services for the solar service, Crane said.

Given the threat to the planet's climate from fugitive methane emissions as a result of fracking, which we've reported on here, that notion of ramping up natural gas production to feed hundreds of millions of home fuel cell generators may not be the best idea ever. Still, as the energy industry increasingly falls into disarray in response to a massive societal shift away from fossil fuel energy, it's always interesting to hear from an executive who's looking past the end of the next quarter.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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Crane's proposal is probably less about arranging marriages between small gas generators (fuel cells, micro turbines, etc.) and rooftop solar, but really meant as a hedge against departing customers who are increasingly investing in sustainable electricity sources like rooftop PV. Those folks next logical steps are 1) adding an energy storage device, and; 2) saying so long to their utility company and ever increasing bills.