David Crane Leaves NRG, Replaced by Mauricio Gutierrez

Source: By DIANE CARDWELL, New York Times • Posted: Friday, December 4, 2015

David Crane, the chief executive of NRG, has stepped down, but will assist in the transition of his replacement through the end of the year. Credit Steve Marcus/Reuters 

A little more than a year ago, David Crane was busy broadcasting plans to transform NRG from a conventional power producer to a new breed of green utility.

In charge of the company for more than 12 years, Mr. Crane had been investing in wind farms and buying small start-ups to help capture emerging markets like rooftop solar, electric-vehicle charging and home automation, all part of a bid, he wrote to shareholders, to become like an Amazon, Apple, Facebook or Google of electricity.

If that indeed comes to pass, he will not be there to see it.

Mr. Crane, 56, stepped down as chief executive, the company said Thursday, and Mauricio Gutierrez, who has been executive vice president and chief operating officer since 2010, will take his place.

The company’s stock tumbled over the last several months, a decline that went largely unabated despite a reorganization and shift in strategy announced by Mr. Crane in September.

“He clearly had a vision for the power company of the future, and wanted NRG to be that company, and took real steps toward that,” said Shayle Kann, who leads GTM Research, which focuses on clean energy industries. “And then Wall Street didn’t get convinced.”

The move comes as utilities here and abroad struggle to cope with the changing economics, policies and technologies in bringing more renewables into the power mix. In Germany, for instance, the large utility RWE, squeezed by low prices for conventional fuels, recently announced that it planned to split its renewables, retail and grid businesses into a separate entity.

At NRG, which operates a large fossil-fuel-based fleet that tends to produce steady dividends, Mr. Crane became a high-profile proponent of change, traveling extensively to gatherings with energy executives and clean-energy advocates like Bill Clinton and Richard Branson and making attention-getting commitments to reduce the company’s carbon footprint.

NRG, he said, would be positioned to take advantage of the shift not only to renewable energy but also away from the traditional monopoly business model to a more decentralized power system.

At the same time, Mr. Crane made a series of bets aimed at helping NRG make the transition to what he saw as a future where customers would have much more control over the sources and use of their electricity.

He bought companies and reorganized NRG into three units. NRG Business was for conventional wholesale energy enterprises, including coal, nuclear and gas power plants. NRG Renew was focused on developing renewable energy sources — including large-scale wind and solar farms and microgrids — for commercial customers like businesses or governments. And NRG Home offered residential customers energy products and services like solar systems and electric-vehicle charging.

But, as a combination of low oil and gas prices and the threat of rising interest rates led to turbulence in the energy markets and skittishness among renewable energy investors, the company pulled back from its ambitions.

The company said it would cut costs, reduce debt and spin off the green enterprises into a separate company on a tight leash. The new green company, which NRG could eventually take public, could attract investment from people interested in growth and clean energy who would not ordinarily invest in NRG, Mr. Crane said at the time.

But the moves were not enough. Now, how things go forward will be up to Mr. Gutierrez, 45, who has been at the company in various roles since 2004. Mr. Crane will assist in the transition through the end of the year, NRG said, but it declined to make him or Mr. Gutierrez available to comment.

For the industry in general, said Anda Ray, vice president for environment at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit industry group, “it’s important to understand your stakeholders, your employees, your consumers and what is their appetite for the pace and scale of change.”

She added: “Oftentimes, we’re very enamored by the next newest thing. At the same time to build that into our everyday lives is actually a significant change.”