NRG Energy

The Problem with Measuring the Future in Minutes: The NRG Story

(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.

Shape of Things to Come? Huge Concentrating Solar Plant Opens in Mojave Desert.

They say that enough sunshine falls on the Earth in one hour, to meet the demands of the whole planet for a year. But how much area is needed to collect what we need? If we divide the area of the earth (196 million square miles) by the number of hours in a year (8,760), we end up with around 22,500 square miles, a little less than the size of West Virginia.

 The massive Ivanpah concentrating solar thermal power—also called concentrating solar power (CSP)—plant stretches out over five square miles, the largest of its kind in the world, has opened in the Mojave Desert, at a site 45 miles southwest of Las Vegas. The plant, which consists of 350,000 tiltable tracking mirrors, each the size of a garage door, can produce 392 megawatts, enough power to run 140,000 homes. The mirrors are focused on three towers, forty stories tall, each containing a boiler. The steam produced from the concentrated sunlight then drives a turbine-generator, much like the steam from a coal-fired plant would. The three-tower system is more space-efficient than a single tower, requiring 25% less land. The plant is also unique in that it uses far less water than other similar plants. The $2.2 billion complex is jointly owned by NRG Energy, Google, and Oakland-based BrightSource Energy. The plant will sell power to PG&E Corp. and Edison International under a 25-year contract.

Throughout its history, response to the project has teetered on the line between the desire for clean, renewable energy, and the desire to preserve open land. In 2012, the government stepped in to designate 17 "solar energy zones" in areas identified as being less wildlife-sensitive and having fewer natural resources. The zones include about 450 square miles in six states—California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

Despite these precautions, government documents show that dozens of dead birds from sparrows to hawks have been found on the site, some of them with melted feathers. The suspected causes of death include collisions with mirrors and scorching. In November alone, 11 dead birds were found, including two with singed feathers. This was enough for the ever-skeptical Wall Street Journal to refer to the plant as a “$2.2 billion bird-scorching project.”

The bird problem is potentially serious enough to forestall a similar project near the Joshua Tree National Park because of the impact it might have on golden eagles and other protected species.

While the successful commissioning of the plant certainly bodes well for the future of solar energy in America, the question of whether we will be seeing lots more plants like this one is a little harder to answer. Besides the bird issue, which is currently undergoing further study, there is another issue that could effect more decision makers: cost.

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