Photovoltaic solar panels on roof of Honda Smart Home at UC-Davis, California
Solar power for your home has been around a long time, but for many homeowners, it's required subsidies, special financing arrangements, and still delivered long payback periods.
That's changing fast, according to the CEO of a major Texas electric utility.
Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee
David Crane, who runs NRG Energy, says that in fully half the states of the union, electricity from residential solar panels will be cost-competitive with that delivered by local electric utilities by next year.
Crane was quoted two weeks ago in a blog post by Navigant Research, which focused on his company's aggressive efforts to migrate to solar power for a growing portion of its portfolio.
NRG recently acquired Roof Diagnostics Solar, one of the 10 largest residential-solar installers in the country. RDS does business in the Northeast--New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut--and plans to expand into California as well.
It will be rolled into NRG's existing residential-solar financing and installation business, which already operates in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Vermont.
Nissan Leaf electric car with eVgo quick charging station. [courtesy eVgo]
Because it's such a large producer--it sells more than half the electricity it generates to other utilities--NRG has a lot more to lose from "distributed generation," the term applied to the effect of hundreds of thousands (soon millions) of renewable power sources owned by individual rate-payers.
So NRG needs to get into that business too, even if it undercuts the revenue of the utilities to which it sells electricity on the wholesale market.
Crane recognizes that in the future, distributed generation will be coupled with home energy storage--whether via battery packs like those in electric cars, perhaps even used packs after their automotive life is over, or other technologies like hydrogen fuel cells.
Once homes can not only generate but store energy, it's at least possible they could decouple from the grid entirely--meaning they're lost to their local utility forever.
NRG also operates the eVgo network of electric-car charging stations, now expanding in California, though questions remain about whether there's any business model in providing public charging-station networks.
Still, it's clear that Crane wants NRG Energy to evolve beyond its traditional generation-and-distribution model, even if it cannibalizes existing businesses.
That's the mark of an entrepreneur. Whether that spirit is a long-term fit in a giant energy company with billions of dollars of existing generating capacity remains to be seen.