Few executives are more outspoken about the threat that distributed energy poses to utilities than NRG Energy CEO David Crane, so it’s not surprising that NRG Energy plans to sell a product that is disruptive to the centralized power business model.
The company is working with Deka Research on an on-site “energy appliance,” according to NRG Energy’s corporate sustainability report. In an interview last week with The Atlantic, Crane said the device, called Beacon 10, can generate electricity from natural gas, work with a battery and rooftop solar, and provide backup in the case of a grid outage. “When there’s not enough solar, you turn on the Beacon 10. Then, ideally, the grid itself would just be the ultimate backup. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Deka Research is headed by Dean Kamen, a renowned inventor best known for creating the Segway transporter who has worked extensively with Stirling engines. Earlier this year at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference, NRG Energy showed a portable Stirling engine, and Crane said that the company is working with Kamen to test 200 of the machines in homes. Kamen has already made a multi-fuel, Stirling-engine-based water purifier called the Slingshot, which Coca-Cola will distribute to rural Latin America and African villages.
A specification sheet seen by the website Energy Choice Matters indicated that the Stirling engine of Beacon 10 is capable of producing 15 kilowatts of power, can send excess energy to the grid, and is slightly larger than a washing machine. The NRGBeacon10.com website has apparently since been taken down, and an NRG representative declined to provide more details on Beacon 10.
Beacon 10 is one of a number of products NRG Energy has that are outside the typical offerings of conventional utilities. The company has developed a solar canopy and has installed EV charging stations at retail locations. It’s also one of the utilities working with Nest Labs to offer consumers a two-way thermostat.
NRG Energy created Station A in San Francisco last spring, a company unit reportedly dedicated to new technologies for the utility industry. “Our broader vision of the future assumes there will be more types of players participating in the energy space,” Robyn Beavers, founder and SVP of Station A, told GreenBiz last month. Before joining NRG, Beavers worked at Deka Research on water and power products.
As a product concept, the Beacon 10 generator is not entirely new. There are already companies that make home fuel cells or residential co-generation machines that provide electricity and use the waste heat for hot water or room heating. But the Beacon 10 appears to be more sophisticated, with the ability to integrate on-site power generation and to work independently from the grid.
Another significant difference from existing products is that a major utility intends to deliver the product to consumers. Crane told The Atlantic that NRG would likely lease the generator to consumers next year, eliminating the substantial upfront cost that this type of machinery would require. And in another break with conventional utility business models, NRG could remotely manage these generators, which, unlike distributed solar, can deliver power continuously. “The way we are envisioning this is that if we had 10,000 of these machines just in the greater New York City area and we as a company had control of the machines, that becomes a 100-megawatt peak power plant as well,” he told The Atlantic.
In public talks, Crane has said that the recent spate of widespread power outages, particularly Hurricane Sandy, has increased the number of consumers who value backup power and the ability to operate independently from the grid. “There’s a whole series of, let’s call them energy-producing appliances, on the cusp of being deployed that will allow people to walk away from the grid and let them produce electricity in their own home,” he said at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference in April. “The solar industry belongs with the natural gas industry -- those industries go together. They just don’t know it yet.”