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How Not to Build the Clean Energy Company of the Future

With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, former NRG chief executive David Crane admits that it probably wasn’t a smart idea to try to turn a giant traditional power company into the clean energy company of the future. “We had the conceit at NRG to think that’s what we were doing… but the clock ran out on us,” he told Fortune’s Brainstorm E conference attendees in Carlsbad, Calif. on Tuesday.

Crane started trying to pivot NRG in 2014, acquiring clean energy operations and attempting to downsize the power producer’s fossil fuel assets. But investors poured cold water on those hopes, pushing the company’s share price down to the point where Crane was forced to resign last year. He’s now an advisor at Pegasus Capital, an investment fund.

“We saw the new, rising clean-energy companies like Solar City, and we knew we weren’t as fast or as entrepreneurial as them, but we were bigger,” Crane recalled during an interview with Andrew Shapiro of Broadscale Group. “And we were confident none of the bigger power companies were going to do anything, so we thought we could be a fast follower.”

 

 

Part of the problem, Crane said, was that the company’s investors had grown used to steady returns on the fossil fuel business that used to be NRG’s bread and butter, and the investments the company made in solar and wind power and other alternatives never amounted to enough to satisfy them.

“The fossil fuel power industry is in the declining stage, so the only viable strategy you have to succeed is to consolidate,” Crane said. “So we had several thousand megawatts of wind and solar… but in the eyes of our investors it never was relevant to anything, because we had about 48,000 megawatts of fossil-based power.” So you need to consolidate, Crane said “but the more you do, the more of what you’re doing on the new side doesn’t match up” as far as investors are concerned.

At the same time, new investors interested in green power couldn’t justify putting money into NRG because of its huge existing fossil fuel business. “I was drawing all these parallels in our space to fixed-line telephony vs. cellphone telephony,” said Crane. “But from an investment perspective, there’s no moral dimension between fixed-line telephony and cellphones, but there is between coal-fired power plant and a solar panel.”