(3BL Media/Justmeans) - A recent story in the New York Times drew attention to some of the challenges to be faced in making big societal changes, such as overhauling a nation’s entire energy system that had run, relatively undisturbed for close to a hundred years.
It told the tale of the less-than-seamless transformation by NRG Energy, framing it as a cautionary tale with echoes of Icarus, who got a little too close to the sun, only to plunge to his demise with the melting of his waxen wings. The company was a traditional electric utility, a big one, producing massive amounts of power, from traditional sources including, coal, natural gas and nuclear. In 2014, they were the fourth largest emitters of carbon dioxide among the nation’s power companies.
This was a difficult time, with shifting tectonics undermining any sense of stability. The ugly head of climate change had been reared long enough and high enough that it had become impossible for all but fools to deny. Investment money for cleaner sources of power began to flow, sending solar and wind costs plummeting. Fossil fuel giants, seeking to fend off the perceived renewable threat, conducted a successful counter-attack in the form of fracking. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The US become the world largest oil and gas producer, literally overnight.
What followed was the equivalent of several ocean-going supertankers finding themselves on a collision course, with not enough time to turn around. David Crane was CEO of NRG from 2003 until suddenly he wasn’t at the end of last year. Crane had seen what climate change was going to mean to his industry. Then he proceeded to do all the right things, or at least what would be considered the right things in a rational world. He made substantial long term investments in renewable power sources such as wind and solar. In doing so, he became recognized as a leader in the growing CSR movement, and a hero to many on the green side of things. But as Crane says in a blog at Greenbiz entitled, “If I was right, why was I fired?” He was trying to transform the company from brown-to-green, but investors didn’t like it.