Having worked in and around the American energy industry for more than 25 years, I wish I could say – like executives in almost every other industry could – that I have witnessed enormous changes in my industry over my career. I wish I could say that a revolution has occurred both in how we make electricity and how we think about its use in the United States. But that would be a lie.
The truth is that our 21st century economy continues to be powered by a 20th century energy industry. Indeed, a familiar illustration of this around our industry is that a power plant worker could have lapsed into a deep coma back in the ‘70s, woken up suddenly in 2012, and be back at work by noon without missing a beat. Same plant. Same combustion process. Same reliance on fossil fuel.
Think about that. Are you using the same phones, being tested by the same medical equipment or driving the same massive cars made of steel and fueled by leaded gasoline as you were in the 1970s? Aren’t you glad that we have advanced from those days? So why are we content in 2012 to consume electricity in such an old fashioned way?
We are content as a people because, for the most part, we are not aware that we have alternatives – cleaner and smarter alternatives, which if done right, hold the potential to fundamentally change the energy equation in a way that will benefit the American public. At key times in the near future, consumers will become sellers of energy as well as buyers, and, as a result, energy will become much more affordable to the average American and much better for both the global environment and for national energy security.
So we should not be content, and we should not rest, until affordable clean energy is available to each and every American and benefits can be realized by all. We, at NRG, will not be content – and neither will President Bill Clinton – until the affordable clean energy future is realized.
The winds of technological change are finally blowing across the American energy industry – in many places, quite literally. The figurative post-coma-power-plant-worker-from-the-‘70s mentioned above would not recognize the massive wind towers that now dot the “wind belt” across our nation's mid-section or the giant solar farms harnessing the inexhaustible energy of the sun in the deserts of the American southwest.
Our solar thermal project – The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System – in California's Mojave Desert will be the largest solar thermal project in the world when complete in 2013. This project will comprise of three plants and will generate 392 megawatts of electricity – nearly doubling the amount of commercial solar thermal energy now generated in the U.S. – and will provide the power needs for 140,000 American homes. The plant will have zero emissions of SOx, NOx and mercury, the traditional pollutants associated with the combustion of fossil fuels.
But wait, there’s more.
Ivanpah’s clean, renewable generation will avoid the emission of 450,000 tons of carbon annually into the atmosphere – that’s 13.5 million tons over the plant’s first 30 years. The project also provides a boost to the local economy by creating thousands of construction jobs at its peak and close to 100 permanent positions. Indeed, just this week, on-site employment is peaking at roughly 2100 workers. Finally, the Ivanpah Project is helping the people of California achieve the clean energy goal that they set for themselves, by popular referendum, of 33 percent renewable power generation by 2020.
But the importance of Ivanpah goes beyond these direct benefits. Ivanpah is also a trendsetter that will “act as a beacon” (writing about solar and wind plants offer alot of pun potential) for others to follow. It proves that renewable plants can be built and financed at enormous scale here and abroad. And while the world’s fossil fuels are distributed quite unevenly, dividing the countries of the world into energy “haves” (wealthy) and “have nots” (in most cases, not wealthy), almost every country has renewable resources that should be harnessed, whether they be solar, wind, geothermal, biomass or even tidal power.
And this is where the work of President Clinton, his Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group becomes so important. As developing countries work to bring the benefits of modern life to their people, they build a grid and electrify their society. In so doing, they often become addicted to foreign-sourced fossil fuels, which is both ruinously expensive and ruinous to local air quality. To the extent local fuel sources can be substituted, deforestation occurs with all its devastating direct and indirect side effects.
Haiti is a prime example. The first time I ever met President Clinton – which was backstage at a political event in October 2008, before the presidential election and before the Haitian earthquake – he leaned in close to me to describe the dire energy and environmental situation in Haiti before asking me, and NRG, to get involved.
With the help of CGI, whose knowledge of Haiti is deep and unerring, we realized that Haiti would be a good place for us to demonstrate the enormous flexibility of solar photovoltaic as a distributed enegry solution and the huge impact it could have in a country where grid power was limited, unreliable, and very expensive. Teaming up with the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), NRG made a $1 million commitment through the Clinton Global Initiative to support clean energy technology infrastructure in a central highland region called Boucan-Carre.
In March, I visited Boucan-Carré with President Clinton to see our progress. The Lashto Fish Farm, a new extension of the Caribbean Harvest fish hatchery, is now operating on solar power, as is the Bon Berger De Doman School. And many more schools in the region are on their way to being electrified. Once the new Partners in Health Mirebalais teaching hospital is complete, it, too, will be operating almost entirely using solar energy (although that was the result of their good work, not ours – however we are pleased to have built a state-of-the-art solar array at PiH’s facility at Zamni Beni in Port-au-Prince). We expect that our “solarization” program will beget other such projects in Haiti and act as a catalyst as the country develops what could be the world’s first post-modern (i.e., post-fossil fuel dependent) power system. This would be a huge step in implementing renewables-based energy systems in the developing world.
Since President Clinton first made his commitment to combatting climate change, laying the foundation for the Kyoto Protocol, his personal efforts and the programs and initiatives of his Foundation, CGI and the C40 are making a measurable difference in people’s lives, reducing environmental degradation, and providing economic benefits to people, businesses, communities, and governments. But the battle against climate change and global environmental degradation more generally remains to be won and, while President Clinton’s resolve to be a leader in that battle is undiminished, the key is how all of us respond. People, aware that they have viable clean energy alternatives, need to make smart choices – even if it means fundamentally changing something boring and mundane in their life like electricity usage. All of us have to remember that we didn't so much inherit this earth from our parents, we borrowed it from our children and our grandchildren.