In Haiti, philanthropy could lead to profits for NRG Solar

The Gunther Report

In Haiti, philanthropy could lead to profits for NRG Solar

A startling encounter with a young boy got David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, hooked on Haiti.

It was his first night in the Caribbean nation, months after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 Haitians and destroyed 250,000 homes and 30,000 businesses.

As Crane tells the story, he and his daughter, who had traveled to Port au Prince to volunteer with the Clinton Global Initiative, left a cocktail reception to return to their hotel when she said, "Daddy, there's a body under the car."

A security guard gently kicked a boy of about 10, who emerged naked from beneath their SUV.

"This kid looked up at me," Crane remembers. "There was no life in his eyes. No hope. Complete nothingness. I was so shocked. There were any number of things that I could have done for that kid. I just stood there and did nothing, except act like a dumb American."

Since then, Crane and NRG Energy, its suppliers and its employees have done a great deal. He's been back to Haiti a half dozen times, often accompanied by his wife and five children. NRG made a $1 million commitment through the Clinton Global Initiative and in partnership with Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) to bring solar power to rural areas of Haiti.

"I didn't mean to get so emotionally caught up in Haiti, but I did," he told me when we spoke by phone the other day.

Now, Crane says, he is hoping that what began as a charitable initiative will demonstrate the power of solar energy to spur economic development in poor countries. It could also help create business opportunities in the Caribbean for NRG.

"The basic idea is demonstrate the flexibility of solar, particularly in distributed applications, and the difference it could make in a country that does not have a functioning electricity system," he said.

In the last couple of years, NRG and its partners have installed a number of small-scale solar systems in Haiti, which suffers from an unreliable electric grid as well as high energy prices. They have completed projects at 20 schools and at a fish hatchery known as the Lashto Fish Farm. Their solar panels help power a drip irrigation system supporting agricultural production in Haiti's Central Plateau. The company also installed panels at an orphanage run by the nonprofit Partners in Health.

On Crane's most recent trip in mid-March, NRG volunteers installed solar panels on a number of buildings in a hospital complex known as the Hospital Bernard Mevs. Power there is so unreliable that medical personnel are sometimes forced to use headlamps and flashlights to operate and care for patients who need medical attention after the sun has gone down, according to this post on NRG Solar's blog. Solar power will help the hospital with its $60,000 monthly energy bill.

This is all to the good, but what will be the payoff for NRG Energy, a publicly-traded company (2012 revenues: $8.4 billion) that has to answer to shareholders?

One benefit is employee motivation. Dozens of people volunteer in Haiti. On the company blog, staffers described the trip as life-changing. One wrote:

Just to see everything, all they go through, and they don't complain at all. People were standing in line for hours -- almost the whole day -- waiting to see a doctor at the hospital. We complain after 20 minutes if our doctor is late for an appointment. It just really puts into perspective all that we have, how little they have and how much our presence there and this project was going to mean for the people of Haiti.

Says Crane: "Every NRG person who's been down there has come back feeling as committed to the project as I am."

Beyond that, Crane sees business opportunities. So far, all of the company's work in Haiti has been charitable, but NRG is pursuing solar projects elsewhere in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico. Throughout the region, electricity prices are high -- as much as 50 cents per kilowatt hour, nearly five times what the average American pays.

"We see significant opportunity in the Caribbean," Crane told me. "We'd like to be involved."

A recent report from GTM Research said that Latin America and the Caribbean will install more than 450 megawatts of grid-connected PV this year, compared to less than 100 megawatts in 2012. Most of that will be in Mexico, Chile and Brazil, but Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are considered attractive markets, too.

In fact, some people see enormous clean energy potential in the Caribbean. Last year, at a conference called the Sustainable Operations Summit, Bill Clinton said: "Almost every country in the Caribbean could be completely energy independent with solar, wind, geothermal and biomass."

Not long after, the government of Aruba announced a plan with Sir Richard Branson and his nonprofit Carbon War Room to make the island "the world's first sustainable energy economy." The Carbon War Room's Smart Island Economies project intends to generate private investment to help islands move away away from fossil fuels.

Imagine if Clinton, Branson, Crane and others got together to bring clean energy -- profitably -- to the Caribbean.

Photo of young boy in aid camp after the 2010 earthquake provided by airndambanerjee via Shutterstock.