NRG Energy CEO David Crane Flips the Switch on Solar Energy
by bret love
About 45 miles southwest of Vegas, in the Mojave Desert’s Ivanpah Dry Lake, David Crane is leading a project that should give a turbocharged boost to America’s clean-energy revolution.
Known as the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the $2.2 billion venture boasts some impressive stats. It uses 347,000 heliostat mirrors to generate a minimum of 392 megawatts of electricity, and in offsetting 450,000 tons of carbon emissions every year, Ivanpah will be the largest solar thermal plant in the world.
It’s a stunning feather in Crane’s cap, the culmination of his 10 years as president and CEO of NRG Energy, lead investor in the Ivanpah project. But it actually began under a different company’s watch. “This technology—mirrors pointed at a boiler in the sky—was developed by a company called BrightSource,” says Crane, a Princeton graduate with a doctorate from Harvard. “They started to develop the Ivanpah project, and we got involved around 2009. It was really only after the Obama administration started offering federal loan guarantees [to green energy companies] that we got interested and committed to the project. The Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program was a key part of the equation.”
It’s somewhat ironic that this 14-square-mile dry lake bed in California, along the Nevada border, was chosen as the site for an ambitious cleanenergy project. Between 1984 and 1996, radioactive waste leaked 69 times from a Mountain Pass rare-earth mine pipeline beneath the lake. (A total of 1,410 tons of contaminated soil had to be removed.) But, according to Crane, Ivanpah was uniquely suited to the project’s needs.
“Concentrated solar energy requires intense sunlight all the time,” he says. “If you look at solar maps of the world, the only US bull’s-eye is over Northwest Arizona and Southern Nevada, in the Mojave Desert. You need a place that’s really flat, because we didn’t want to bulldoze the natural topography or force a bunch of small animals into extinction. Most of the solar mirrors we used are posted on the land just as it existed before. It’s flat enough there to point all the mirrors at the same tower.”
The project is anticipated to provide enough emission-free electricity to power 140,000 homes each year. And in terms of the local economy, in less than three years it has already hired more than 3,000 construction workers, which doesn’t include the workforce that will be required to manage and maintain the facility. But Crane suggests that the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System could also have a far-reaching impact on the entire energy industry.
“There’s this view against solar energy,” he says. “People think that they’re small projects that are insignificant on the margin, almost like toys. But anyone who goes to Ivanpah will see that this is a very serious power plant. It shows that renewable energy can throw punches the same size as fossil fuels. It also proves the benefit of solar concentrate over solar voltaic. If the sun goes behind a cloud, power from a solar voltaic plant will drop quickly. Concentrated solar—because it uses mirrors to turn water into steam—can handle clouds passing over without fluxing the amount of electricity being delivered. It’s much more user-friendly for trying to maintain the stability of the grid.”
Understandably, Crane has high hopes for the future of sustainable energy. “Ten years from now, I think it will still be overwhelmingly based on fossil fuels, but the main fossil will have changed from coal-focused to natural gas,” he says. “I believe that renewable energy will be the biggest-growing proportion, moving toward 20 percent of the total. Right now, wind and solar together are only at five percent, so we’re looking for it to quadruple the current market share.”
photography by jeff gale