The energy industry is running out of time on climate change, says NRG CEO David Crane. And if utilities don't find the customer-centric solutions to the problem, they're in big trouble.

“There’s nothing we can offer utilities that’s better than what they have now, which is a complete monopoly,” he said during a conversation hosted by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “The thing is, if you empower people to provide their own electricity, that’s beyond the scope of not only of the utility, but also the regulator.”

During the discussion, Crane summed up his plan to address climate change in five steps. “I don’t think it’s all that complicated,” he said.

Carbon capture: “We have to figure out carbon capture absent of a price on carbon,” he said. That is a massive business opportunity, he told the room. “You can save the planet and potentially make a billion dollars. Who doesn’t like that?” He pointed to NRG’s $20 million Carbon X Prize, which calls for novel ideas to capture carbon along with uses for that carbon. “If I can turn carbon emissions from a risk to an asset,” he suggested, “I’ve done a wonderful thing for NRG shareholders.”

Push renewables, even when it's hard: Crane's vision for NRG has been to make it the Google or Apple of energy delivery. Wall Street hasn't responded well to the plan. NRG is now splitting its traditional business from its green business in order to appease investors. Interestingly, Crane said that investor reaction might be a positive. “When the market treats every announcement as a negative catalyst, in some ways it’s freeing,” he said. “So you say, ‘I’m not going to try to figure it out; I’m just going to do the right thing.’”  

Decentralize the developing world: If Crane were to start his career over, “I’d be bringing solar to every country in East Africa,” he said. “The opportunities are immense.” The market for off-grid solar is expanding quickly, with record-level commitments coming from local governments and investors in this sector. Crane suggested that emerging economies should avoid building out centralized power systems with large centralized fossil-fuel plants (which NRG owns a lot of). 

Clean transportation: He didn’t elaborate on an exact plan, but Crane said he is bullish on electric vehicles -- and not just because he has five of them sitting in his driveway. NRG is invested in charging infrastructure through its eVgo infrastructure and working on testing bidirectional charging to make EVs a grid asset. NRG still sees the all-electric vehicles as secondary to conventional cars for many years, but Crane said that market is still about 6 million vehicles per year, all of which could be EVs. 

Stopping deforestation: While arguably one of the most important areas, this part of the plan featured the least detail. “I’ll leave that to Paul Polman at Unilever,” said Crane.