NRG Seeks to Cut 90% of Its Carbon Emissions

Source: By DIANE CARDWELL, New York Times • Posted: Friday, November 21, 2014

NRG has invested in the Petra Nova project, which will capture and reuse emissions from this coal-fired power plant in Texas. CreditEric Kayne/Invision for NRG, via Associated Press

David Crane, the company’s chief executive, made the announcement at a ceremony breaking ground for the company’s new headquarters in Princeton, N.J., conceived as a green-energy showcase that will open in 2016.

“The power industry is the biggest part of the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, but it has the potential to be an even bigger part of the solution,” Mr. Crane said in an interview before the announcement.

Since 2005, the company has reduced its carbon emissions 40 percent, executives say, and the new goals would use this year’s projected level of 125 million metric tons as a baseline. Few power companies have made similar commitments, although they have become common in corporate America and are part of the impetus for NRG’s move.

“We are working with these companies on putting solar panels all over their facilities, and it’s helpful for them to know that we’re heading in the right direction,” Mr. Crane said.

In addition, Mr. Crane said that he was mindful of the growing pressure from younger Americans and investors to decrease dependence on fossil fuels. A report this week commissioned by Ceres, a Boston advocacy group that focuses on the economic risks of climate change, concluded that investments in large fossil fuel and nuclear plants had a higher chance of causing financial harm to utilities than investments in renewable sources, in part because of proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations for power plants and the falling costs for large-scale wind and solar installations.

“If divestment from fossil fuel companies becomes the issue that preoccupies college campuses around America for the next decade,” Mr. Crane said, “I don’t relish the idea that year after year we’re going to be graduating a couple million kids from college, who are going to be American consumers for the next 60 or 70 years, that come out of college with a distaste or disdain for companies like mine.” He added that renewables were the segment of the power sector showing the greatest growth.

NRG’s group of conventional power plants is among the nation’s largest, which makes it a major source of carbon dioxide emissions. Cutting their emissions by 90 percent would keep three billion metric tons of carbon out of the atmosphere, or about the amount created by providing fuel and electricity to seven million homes from now to 2050, the company said.

“If everybody did that, then that’s about what the world needs to have a decent chance of staying below the 2-degree target — that’s their share,” he said.

He added that the emphasis on renewables could encourage others to adopt them as well. “Every time a company gets on that pathway — makes a commitment to increase their renewables — it lowers the cost of all those renewables going forward for everyone,” he said.

The company has been moving aggressively to increase its business in renewables. It was one of the major investors in the five-square-mile Ivanpah solar thermal plant that opened this year in the Mojave Desert, for instance, and this week, it announced the expansion of its rooftop solar business in California.

Nonetheless, Mr. Crane said, the company will continue to develop natural gas plants and, while retiring some coal plants and converting others tonatural gas, it will not be abandoning the coal business.

“I would hate to see the country sort of turn its back on coal,” he said. “I think we, alone or with the Chinese, have to direct our attention to capturing the carbon.”

To that end, the company has invested in Petra Nova, a joint venture with JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration, to develop a commercial-scale postcombustion carbon capture project at one of NRG’s large coal plants in Texas. Financed with the help of a $167 million Energy Department grant, it is expected to capture 90 percent of the plant’s carbon emissions, which will travel about 80 miles through a pipeline for use in extracting oil before being sequestered.

When asked about the carbon emissions from producing and using that oil, Mr. Crane said the net result would still be less carbon in the atmosphere. He added that NRG was also working to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles by developing a charging network.