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NRG's David Crane: 'Are we there yet'?

Here's how the energy giant's CEO plans to navigate a 'sustainability road trip,' driving from fossil fuels to 100 percent clean energy.

It’s an inevitable, stress-inducing call on any road trip. Usually, the typical first answer is “soon.” But as time in the boring confines of an automobile drags on, and patience wears thin, the answer invariably devolves into something like, “We’ll get there when we get there; try to enjoy the ride.” While hardly a satisfying answer for the incessantly quizzical, it’s usually enough to get through the last leg of the drive.

We have no such simple quips or easy rebuttals for our current global climate change road trip. But as you will see in this year’s 2014 Sustainability Report, NRG is making significant strides toward a cleaner, more sustainable destination.

We’ve got a vision of where we want to get to — where we have to get to, according to the world’s climate experts — and a forming strategy on how to get there. But there remain gaps to fill, partnerships to be formed and resistance to be overcome on the road to the clean energy future.

So, are we moving fast enough? “Are we there yet?” No. Clearly not. 

Today NRG is the nation’s second-largest conventional power generation company, and, as a result, still a major emitter of carbon dioxide. However, we are headed in the right direction, having achieved significant reductions in CO2 emissions in recent years. Yet the past is the past and we, when we focus on sustainability in particular, are entirely focused on where we go from here.

Last year, we made our intentions clear with a plan to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent by 2030, and by 90 percent by 2050 below a 2014 baseline. It’s a unique and uniquely important goal. Almost unprecedented for a corporation, it is particularly so for an energy company, which historically has been almost 100 percent dependent on fossil fuels. If we can show the way on this and other energy companies then follow — voluntarily or as a result of customer demand or peer group pressure — then we successfully will have tackled the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

NRG alone, because of our size, can have a real impact. Once achieved, our CO2 reduction goals will be the equivalent of averting the deforestation of 18,000 square miles of Amazonian rain forest. That’s a sprawling chunk of land the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined.

 A large part of our long-term carbon reduction strategy is predicated on the embrace of emerging technologies to allow us to achieve our carbon goals while continuing to fulfill our “sacred” mission of keeping our customers and the communities we serve energized with safe, affordable and reliable power.

We already have started. In 2014, we broke ground on our billion dollar Petra Nova Project, one of the world’s largest post-combustion carbon capture projects now under construction at WA Parish, a large coal plant south of Houston. This commercial-scale, economically viable approach to carbon capture will go online next year and redirect 90 percent of the CO2  from the processed flue gas (which, to be clear, is not all of the plant’s flue gas), then reuse it for enhanced oil recovery, thus storing it deep underground.

NRG itself can make a significant difference on this issue, but if solving most societal issues “takes a village,” winning the fight against global warming “takes a global village”; not just sovereign nations, but also sub-sovereign entities such as cities and municipalities, eNGOs and purposeful energy consumers. Even our most prominent spiritual leaders such as the pope and the Dalai Lama have a critical role to play. Yet the key players we know best, who can make a big difference with their combined access to technology, consumer outreach, financial and human resources and their singularity of purpose, are the major corporations who feel as we do regarding the moral imperative of climate change.

In 2014, we announced a strategic partnership with Unilever that aligns with that company’s Sustainable Living Plan. It’s a forward-thinking global blueprint for sustainable growth that aims to double the size of Unilever’s business while reducing its environmental footprint and increasing its positive social impact.

Unilever U.S. already purchases all of its electricity from renewable sources through renewable energy certificates. Through this novel partnership, NRG is helping Unilever devise innovative solutions for onsite and offsite renewable generation, resulting in 100 percent clean energy for all energy use at Unilever U.S. sites by 2020.

Our partnership with Unilever has been followed with others such as corporate thought leaders from Kaiser Permanente in the healthcare field and Starwood in hospitality. And more to come. Many more. Hopefully, for the planet, many, many more.

If we can align with other companies to establish carbon reduction goals, engage their employees, reach back into their supply chains and, most of all, galvanize their customer base, then we will have the momentum we need to win this.

It is the younger generations who have the right to demand leadership from us on this transcendent issue of our time. Certainly, speaking on behalf of NRG, we will lead. But in so doing, we don’t stand alone. From the full range of public and private institutions, into every home and in the hearts and minds of every energy consumer, we all need to stand up and be counted — not just with our words, but through our actions.

When it comes to climate change, the caustic barbs of denial from the children of darkness are of little consequence; what is important is allaying the fears and converting the apathy of the children of light so they stand together.

This piece originally appeared in NRG's 2014 sustainability report.

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