General Motors, Coca-Cola, NRG Energy: Sustainability leaders at Brainstorm Green

General Motors' Dan Akerson at Brainstorm Green

General Motors’ Dan Akerson at Brainstorm Green

Dan Akerson, the chief of executive of General Motors, loves the Chevy Volt. Bea Perez of Coca-Cola is backing inventor Dean Kamen, who wants to take a water-purification machine to the global south. David Crane, the chief executive of NRG Energy, would like to see solar panels on half the rooftops in America.

They all spoke at Fortune Brainstorm Green, the magazine’s conference about business and the environment conference, last week in Laguna Niguel, CA. I’ve been co-chair of Brainstorm Green since its launch in 2008, and, as I wrote the other day, I’ve felt uncomfortable at times when the tone of the event becomes too celebratory, given the scale of the environmental problems we face. Having said that, today I want to showcase a few business executives who are emerging as sustainability leaders.

One is Dan Akerson of GM, the stodgiest and most bureaucratic of the US automakers. A newcomer to Detroit–he is a Naval Academy graduate who made a fortune in private equity at Carlyle, before taking over at GM in 2010–Akerson that his predecessors had been “part of the problem, rather than the solution” when they stood in the way of  regulators who wanted to raise fuel-efficiency standards for cars, and he said the auto industry had been slow to recognize the threat of climate change. Hours after he spoke at Brainstorm Green, GM became the biggest company and the first automaker to endorse the climate declaration from CERES and its BICEP (Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy) coalition. [click to continue...]

For green business, blue skies ahead. For climate policy, who knows?

The renewable energy and clean tech industries let loose a collective sigh of relief today. President Obama’s re-election means they still  have a friend in the White House.

Clean energy was a big winner yesterday,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “American voters not only re-elected a president who made green jobs a cornerstone of his first term and his campaign, they also rejected some of the shrillest champions of Big Oil and Big Coal.”

As Nick Robins, HSBC’s climate research analyst, said today:

Obama’s victory essentially protects key climate policies from repeal, particularly the regulation of carbon dioxide by the EPA, most notably in the power and auto sectors. It also offers the chance of extending the Production Tax Credit for wind energy when it expires at the end of this year.

True enough, but the today’s inefficient, hodge-podge collection of EPA rules, clean-energy subsidies and state mandates — while better than nothing — is no substitute for a rational economy-wide policy to deal with climate change.

Could this election usher in a carbon tax or cap-and-trade regulations to limit global warming pollution? That’s impossible to know,  but there’s no evidence that climate action has climbed to the top of the president’s to-do list.

Obama made a passing reference to climate change in his acceptance speech, saying: “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

But his all-but-absolute silence about global warming during the campaign means that he has no mandate from voters to act on the issue. Worse, he has made close to zero effort to persuade Americans that the issue matters, a failure that will surely cast a shadow over his legacy if it isn’t rectified during a second term.

To see what’s next for climate and green business after the election, I reached out to some smart people in the business world and in Washington to see what opportunities, if any, they see.

The first, and maybe the best, opening will arise when the president and the lame-duck Congress face the so-called fiscal cliff in the next 60 days. The government will need revenue to avoid painful spending cuts and tax increases, and a tax on carbon emissions could become an option. [click to continue...]

Guess who’s coming to Brainstorm Green?

FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference is more than just talk.

Ann Hand, the ceo of green-building startup Project Frog, recently told me that she met venture capitalist Chuck McDermott at the first Brainstorm Green in 2008. That helped lead to her current job. [See my blogpost, Project Frog's Ann Hand: Disrupting construction ]

At Brainstorm Green 2010, Bill Ford, the chairman of Ford Motor, got to talking with Scott Griffith, the ceo of Zipcar. That helped bring about a Ford partnership with Zipcar to get Ford cars onto college campuses.

Later, Ford and Zipcar together invested in Wheelz, a car-sharing startup whose ceo, Jeff Miller, spoke last year at Brainstorm Green. [See my blogpost, Car sharing, revving up]

Brainstorm Green is about making the connections that help drive market solutions to environmental problems. The people and the issues have changed over the years but the theme has remained constant: How can corporate America help solve the world’s biggest environmental problems?

With some interesting tweaks to our format, a new and improved Brainstorm Green will be back in 2013. Dates are April 29-May 1, and we’ll be back at the spectacular Ritz Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel, CA. Our programming partners will be Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International.

We’ve been recruiting CEO-level speakers for a couple of months now, and have generated an enthusiastic response. Ted Turner, the legendary enterpreneur, environmentalist and philanthropist, has agreed to join us, and if you’ve never heard Ted speak, you’re in for a treat. [See my blogpost: Ted Turner: Telling it like it is] Ted is always entertaining but, more important, he’s nearly always right, whether the topic is global warming, nuclear disarmament or raising bison for his Ted’sMontana Grill restaurant chain.

Another headliner will be the big-thinking, green-minded (pun intended)  investor Jeremy Grantham, whose GMO asset management firm manages about $100 billion. “Global warming will be the most important investment issue for the foreseeable future,” Grantham wrote in a letter to his investors a couple of years ago. If you don’t know much about him, read this excellent profile from The New York Times Magazine. He’s a fascinating guy who, like Ted, has been ahead of the curve more often than not. [click to continue...]

Thoughts on being power-less

No one pays much attention to electricity.

Until we’re forced to go without it.

I’ve not blogged for a while because I’ve been intermittently without electricity–first, by design, for a couple of days last week, when I took a rafting and camping trip off the grid in northern California, and then after I returned home to Bethesda, where a summer storm that killed 22 people also left more than 1.8 million people without electricity in the mid-Atlantic states.

Being power-less does interesting things to people.

Before leaving on the rafting trip, I confess, I was uneasy about doing without a cell phone, Internet access, email, Twitter and baseball scores, not necessarily in that order. I try to turn off my computer on Saturdays, to observe the Jewish sabbath, but I rarely succeed. Even when traveling overseas, I try to check in at least once a day. On an ordinary day, I rarely go more than an hour without checking email. This is an addiction, plain and simple.

Once I got out on the middle fork of the American River, none of that mattered. (Well, I did think about my beloved Washington Nationals now and then.) I was traveling with a group of fun and interesting people, assembled by Jib Ellison of the BluSkye sustainability consulting firm. The rafting was enormous fun. I camped for the first time in more than 30 years. (The technology of tents has improved nicely since then.) We ate well, and marveled at the beauty of the Sierra Nevadas.

Being off the grid was liberating–and restorative.

As it happened, we talked some about electricity. This was a group of sustainability people, after all. David Crane, the ceo of NRG Energy, talked about how he’d like to see solar panel on the roofs of half of the homers in America, roughly 50 million in all, but lamented the fact that most people aren’t aware that the cost of solar has fallen dramatically, that you can lease panels rather than buy them and avoid the high upfront costs, and that in some states the owners of solar-powered homes can sell electricity back to the grid. Most people, we agreed, just turn on their TV or plug in their laptop without thinking about how they are powered.

That wasn’t the case, of course, after a powerful storm struck Washington, D.C., and its suburbs on Friday. Many people took the inconvenience in stride, especially those of us, like my wife and I, who were fortunate enough to be able to check into a hotel for a couple of nights. But others griped incessantly about Pepco, the local power company, and a few treated the power outage as a hardship, which, to be fair, it can for older people or small children which suffer from the heat.

Hundreds of people flocked to malls and coffee shops to feed their Internet habit, sometimes squabbling over outlets.

 

That there might be a connection (no pun intended) between their electricity usage and the extreme weather — particularly the sweltering heat that has enveloped the DC area — probably did not occur to many. Burning coal, which generates more than 40% of the electricity in the US, is the biggest single contributor to climate change.

In a very real sense, the storms that cause us to lose electricity are caused, in part, by the fact that we use electricity that’s produced by burning fossil fuels.

To be sure, it’s not possible to link any particular weather event to global warming. But according to the National Climatic Data Center, more than 16,300 daily high temperature records were broken through June this year in the U.S. Whew! For more on the relationship between climate change and extreme weather, check out this update on Heat Waves and Climate Change from a nonprofit group called Climate Communication.

Don’t blame Pepco, folks; blame us.

Being without power is, of course, a more than an inconvenience for many. It’s a way of life. An estimated 1.3 billion people, or about 20 percent of the world’s population, live without regular access to an on-off switch of any kind, according to the International Energy Agency. About 85% of people in rural sub-Saharan Africa, for example, have no electricity in their homes.

Their kids can’t study at night. And they can’t plug in at a neighborhood Starbucks.

Maybe instead of whining when we’re powerless, we should try to be grateful that we live in a country where the electricity is nearly always on. Be even more grateful when we have an opportunity to unplug. And give some thought to installing  solar panels on the roof.

NRG Energy: Hoping to score big with solar

The view from the NRG suite at Redskins Park

The Washington Redskins played with enough energy to send Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys into overtime, but by the time the ‘Skins fell to their sixth consecutive loss, my host at Redskins Park  — David Crane, the chief executive of NRG Energy — had left. Actually, he exited before halftime . . . to attend another NFC East showdown, the Giants-Eagles prime time game in New Jersey.

No, Crane is not a football fanatic. But the affable 52-year-old CEO is fanatic about promoting solar power, which is why he’s been spending time lately with NFL owners. NRG installed solar panels last summer at Redskins Park [See my blogpost,  An NFL rivalry...over solar], and he would like the company, which is based in Princeton, N.J.,  to deliver solar energy to the stadiums where the Giants and Jets, Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots play.

Why? To show people–particularly the influential, well-to-do types who attend NFL games–that solar energy makes sense, today.

“This is about demonstrating to the public the potential of solar,” David told me, as Dallas jumped to an early lead.  and we made our way up to the front of the suite. “I just want to make sure I see at least one play before I go,” he said, ruefully.

David Crane

Most utility company CEOs are, frankly, dull. Not Crane. He’s straightforward and occasionally outspoken, friendly and open, and ready to think in new ways about an industry that hasn’t changed all that much since Edison’s day. He is passionate about the climate crisis–he was active in USCAP, the failed big biz-big green coalition that lobbied for federal regulation of greenhouse gases, and he pushed hard to build a low-carbon nuclear plant in Texas until the risks grew too high post-Fukushima. He’s a friend of the Clintons, which is one reason why NRG made a $1 million contribution through the Clinton Global Initiative to deliver solar power to Haiti.

Now he is pushing hard for rooftop solar, smart meters and electric cars–a set of technologies that has the potential to transform the way utilities operate. [click to continue...]

An NFL rivalry…over solar

Dan Snyder, the owner of The Washington Redskins, is not exactly a tree-hugger. To the contrary, he once offered to pay the National Park Service $25,000 to cut down trees on federal land near his estate overlooking the Potomac River. So when Snyder embraces solar power, by installing more than 8,000 solar panels at FedEx Field, well, that tells you something.

It tells you that the economics of solar make sense–because Snyder is known for extracting every dollar he can from the business of the Redskins.

It also tells you that he’s a competitor.  The Redskins deal with NRG Energy, a Princeton, N.J.-based independent power producer,  took root at last year’s Super Bowl, after the NFL East rival Philadelphia Eagles announced that they were installing solar, wind and biofuel energy at Lincoln Financial Field. [See my 2010 blogpost, Climate leaders: Chevy, NRG Energy and the Eagles].

No surprise, then, that the Redskins/NRG announcement made a point of calling the solar project “the largest installation at an NFL stadium.” It’s also the largest solar installation in the Washington, D.C., metro area.

While I prefer baseball to football, and the New York Giants to the Redskins (despite last Sunday’s game), I made the trek  to FedEx field by Metro today to see the solar panels and hear what Snyder and David Crane, the CEO of NRG, had to say about them. [click to continue...]

NRG’s David Crane: straight talk about energy

Washington may be stuck in neutral–or worse–when it comes to climate policy, but NRG Energy and its chief executive, David Crane, are aggressively pushing clean energy.

NRG Energy is investing in nuclear power, solar energy (photovoltaic and utility-scale solar thermal) and electric cars. It’s powering the Empire State Building. It’s even helping to finance off-the-grid solar power in Haiti.

“Washington is not filled with people who are going to lead,” Crane says. So it’s up to business to show the way.

I interviewed David Crane at the State of Green Business 2011 forum in Chicago. He’s always a pleasure to talk to because he’s brimming with ideas and tells it like it is. Based in Princeton, N.J., NRG is a $9 billion a year independent power producer that operates coal, nuclear, natural gas, wind and solar plants.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

On nuclear power: “Nuclear is the ultimate green solution, if what we are solving for is climate change,” Crane said. NRG wants to build a new 2,700 MW nuclear faciity in Bay City, Texas, next to an existing plant. It would supply enough energy to power 2 million Texas homes. The project requires federal loan guarantees and progress through the regulatory system has been slow.

Despite strong support for nuclear from President Obama, Energy Secy Chu and Republicans in Congress, the U.S. is likely to build no more than two new nuclear power plants in this decade, “which is not exactly a nuclear renaissance,” Crane said. [click to continue...]

Climate leaders: Chevy, NRG Energy and the Eagles

While the new Congress appears likely to do nothing, or worse, to deal with climate change, and while expectations of the upcoming UN negotiations in Cancun are lower than low, GM’s Chevrolet, NRG Energy and the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles today all announced climate actions — which suggests that business will keep moving towards sustainability, with or without prodding from the government.

Briefly, the most entertaining news of the day is about the Eagles. (After last week’s Monday Night Football game,  I was tempted to write a headline saying: Philadelphia beats Washington, again! ) The team is installing 80 wind turbines, 2,500 solar panels and a 7.6 megawatt on-site dual-fuel cogeneration plant (which can operate on bio-diesel or natural gas) at Lincoln Financial Field, which may well be, as the team boasts, the greenest sports stadium in the world. Here’s a mockup of the stadium provided by the Eagles.

“This is one of the most exciting things to take place in Philadelphia,” the city’s mayor, Michael Nutter, at ceremonies shown on the web. “Having partners like the Philadelphia Eagles makes going greener much easier.”  Jeffrey Lurie, the owner of the Eagles, and his wife Christina expressed their passion for the “Go Green” initiative, which includes recycling, composting, water conservation as well as renewable energy. (The Eagles even planted 4,000 trees in a Louisiana state park to offset team travel.) Said Christina Lurie: “The Eagles have embarked on a never-ending sustainability journey.” [click to continue...]

The hidden costs of solar power

In this sluggish economy, you would think that selling expensive electricity to businesses or homeowners would not be a good business. But the solar-power industry is doing exactly that. Solar power is more expensive that making electricity from natural gas, coal, wind or existing nuclear plants, and yet the business is booming. [See: U.S. solar power: doubling in 2010!]

Hardly a day goes by without good news for the solar industry. For example:

BrightSource Energy, Inc. just announced that power generation company NRG Energy will invest up to $300 million to become the biggest owner of the  Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the largest solar thermal system in the world, just beginning construction in California’s Mojave Desert. Gov. Schwarzenegger and Interior Secy Ken Salazar joined in a groundbreaking today. That’s a mock-up of the Ivanpah plant, above.

And:

SunRun, a California-based home solar company, said this week it received an additional commitment of tax equity from an affiliate of U.S. Bancorp to develop 1,900 residential solar installations. Given that the typicalinstallation costs about $35,000, that’s roughly a $65 million investment. SunRun has now raised more than  $300 million in project financing.

Recently, I visited a solar PV manufacturer,  Solyndra, at its headquarters in Fremont, CA. While Solyndra is worried about competition from low-cost manufacturers in China, it is still selling all of the photovoltaic panels it manufacturers. Recently:

It announced deals to installs its cylindrical solar panels on the roof of a Frito-Lay manufacturing plant and on rooftops in the Los Angeles area that will supply 16.2 MW of power to Southern California Edison.

None of this comes cheap, although calculating the cost of solar power is not simple–it depends on the kind of system in place, its location and the costs of financing, since “fuel” from the sun is free. Solarbuzz, a respected source, says that:

Solar Electricity Prices are today, around 30 cents/kWh, which is 2-5 times average Residential electricity tariffs.

According to the Energy Information Administration, the average residential price for electricity in June was 12 cents/kWh, the  average commercial retail price was 10.70 cents/kWh and the  average industrial retail price was 7.31 cents/kWh.

So why do the economics of solar power work for the industry? The answer, you won’t be surprised to learn, is generous government subsidies. [click to continue...]

How electric cars will save you money

If you are someone who watches your dollars and cents, you probably don’t own a plug-in hybrid. Sure, they deliver good gas mileage but it’s not good enough to offset the higher sticker price needed to cover the costs of the battery. (That’s why I own a Honda Fit.) Cars like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight are expensive ways to say, ‘I’m green.’

Nissan Leaf

Electric cars are another story, and that’s why the arrival of the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt in just a few months could become a watershed moment for the auto industry, as well as for the environmental movement. Unlike the Prius, the Leaf and Volt are not aimed at the early-adopter, eco-conscious, well-to-do niche buyers on the coasts and in places like Amherst, Ma., and Ann Arbor, Mi. They are being built for the mass market.

The economics make all the difference.

That, at least, is my takeaway from a discussion about electric cars held earlier today at a Washington Post Live event called Energy Now. (Video will be posted on the site, the newspaper says.) The panel was stacked with electric-car enthusiasts–Tony Posawatz from Chevy, Carlos Tavares of Nissan, David Crane of NRG Energy, David Vieau of battery-maker A123 Systems and a lone skeptic, Alan Crane of the National Research Council. But with the exception of Alan Crane, they all argued that electric cars will be not only fun to drive, not only convenient (because you don’t need to drive to a gas station to refuel) and not only good for the climate and for U.S. energy security, but also cheaper to own over the life of the car.

Chevy Volt

That’s essentially because (1) electric car engines are more efficient than internal-combustion engines and (2) generating electricity from a big coal, natural gas or nuclear plant is more efficient than burning gasoline in millions of cars.

This isn’t a new argument. I’ve heard it from people like David Sokol of Berkshire Hathaway and BYD, and from Shai Agassi (See Electric cars: all systems go) but David Crane’s explanation today laid out the math in clear terms.

Describing NRG’s plans in Houston (see Why the Petro Metro wants electric cars), Crane said the NRG-owned utility company, Reliant Energy, is working with Nissan and plans to offer Leaf owners an all-you-can-eat model for buying electricity to power the car. Here’s the selling proposition:

First, NRG would buy and install a Level 2 car charger for the home. Those are worth $1,500 to $2,000, Crane said, and they can fully charge a Leaf, which has a range of about 100 miles, in four to eight hours. “You come home from work, you plug it in, and in the morning it’s ready to go again,” he said. Second, NRG will build a network of charging stations around the city of Houston. “At no point will you be more than five miles away from a fast charge,” he said. )The business model for sustaining the stations remains uncertain.)  Third, NRG will offer  unlimited mileage for three years at a price still to be determined, but estimated at $70 to $80 a month, added to the utility bill. After the three years, the price would drop because by then NRG will have recouped the cost of the charging station and would only need to pay for the electricity.

So how does the math look? At $80 a month, fuel costs for the Leaf would be $960 a year. By comparison, assume that you drive a conventional car 15,000 miles a year and get 20 mpg. You’ll buy 750 gallons of gas. At $2.58 per gallon, the current average price on the Gulf Coast, you’ll pay just under $2,000 a year.

You can challenge my assumptions, but that $1,000 a year in fuel savings will over time offset the upfront cost of the Leaf, which is roughly $25,000 after a federal rebate in most places and $20,000 in California which offers a state rebate as well. If gas prices rise, the deal looks sweeter. It looks better yet if, as seems likely, the costs of batteries (and the sticker price) falls.

Then there are the psychic benefits. A123′s Vieau said the company has already hired 300 people at the battery-making plant it just opened in Livonia, Mi., and expects to hire many more. “We’re shifting dollars spent on oil overseas to create jobs at home,” Vieau said.

People who care about the environment, meanwhile, can take pride in the fact that they are driving cleaner cars.

“American’s want to make a difference if they can,” NRG’s Crane said. “Look at the organic food business.”

Now, a couple of caveats: Today’s electric car business is heavily subsidized, it must be noted. Buyers get tax breaks. Battery maker A123 got a $249-million stimulus grant, a federal loan guarantee and state subsidies and Nissan was given a $1.4 billion energy department loan guarantee to retool a plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. GM, of course, got bailed out.

The second caveat is that it will take years for electric cars to have a major impact. The Chevy Volt will be available in only seven states at first, Posawatz told me that Chevy will make only “thousands” of the cars in the first model year, and “tens of thousands” after that. “If the demand is there, we’ll keep building more,” he said.

Nissan will make about 60,000 Leafs in  Japan during 2011, for the world market. Nissan had been taking pre-orders for the Leaf on its U.S. website, but stopped today because 20,000 have been ordered. The company will be able to build more starting late in 2012 when it opens the Smyrna plant, which has a capacity of 150,000 units a year.

To put that in context, there are more than 250 million cars on the road today in the U.S.

Still, I received an interesting 62-page report earlier today from HSBC Research called Sizing the Climate Economy. (If you Google it, you can download a PDF.) Its best guess is that the market for low-carbon vehicles — essentially, electric cars — will grow to $473 billion worldwide by 2020, making low-carbon transport business a bigger investment opportunity than low-carbon energy.

Electric cars, in other words, are going to be a very big deal.