There are more than 111 million Americans between the ages of 6 and 31. Why should that matter to utilities?
Six is the average age of first-time cell phone users in the United States. Thirty-one is the average age of first-time homeowners. The demographic understands new technologies and represents the next generation of energy consumers in the country.
It’s also a demographic the energy industry “chronically ignores,” according to NRG Energy CEO David Crane.
“Think about what we could achieve if we are the first company to try and be the energy provider of choice to 111 million Americans,” said Crane, speaking to investors during a presentation last week.
Enter Steve McBee. A former Washington, D.C. lobbyist, McBee gave his first presentation last week as CEO of NRG Home, a subsidiary of the New Jersey-based energy supplier.
According to McBee, the future is personal power. The most successful companies will get into the market early with products and services tailored to the customer, allowing them to generate and control their energy with digital technologies, and share excess energy with other consumers through broader markets and peer-to-peer infrastructure, he explained.
As millennials achieve the most buying power of any demographic by 2018, they’ll be the most important customers for NRG Home, said McBee.
“You’ll see a lot of effort and engagement coming out of NRG Home in the coming months and years to really target this community, to engage them, to earn their trust and win their hearts and minds -- and, ultimately, their wallets,” McBee told investors.
Across all areas of business, NRG thinks it can double earnings by 2022 with help from younger customers and cutting-edge technologies. The company expects to earn $3.3 billion in 2015 and $6.6 billion in 2022.
Solar is at the center of NRG's strategy. U.S. solar installations grew twenty-two-fold in the last six years, from 263 megawatts (AC) in 2008 to 5.7 gigawatts (AC) in 2014. Residential solar alone represents a trillion-dollar market opportunity, according to Crane.
NRG made a major push into the residential solar market last year with the acquisition of Roof Diagnostics. NRG is now the fifth-largest residential solar installer in the U.S. with a 2 percent market share as of the third quarter of last year, according to GTM Research. SolarCity is the biggest, with one-third of the residential market. NRG executives say they want to give SolarCity a run for its money.
Single customer, multi-product strategy
Beyond solar, NRG wants to meet the rest of the home's energy needs, plus help power users' electric vehicles with NRG eVgo and charge their electronics on the go with Goal Zero. The company is attempting to weave all of these products and services together as a seamless offering.
“It’s all about customer acquisition, customer retention, cross-selling and up-selling,” said Crane.
NRG wants to become a brand akin to Google or Amazon, which have grown due to their intense focus on customer experience.
It plans to get there by leveraging its size and NRG Yield to secure favorable financing, tap into its base of more than 2 million existing customers, build new strategic business partnerships, and draw on expertise and economies of scale from NRG’s utility-scale solar business.
NRG expects to grow its commercial and industrial solar business, which it sees as a 21-gigawatt opportunity, the same way.
Last week, NRG announced an alliance with Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. to install solar arrays at several hotel sites, starting with nearly 3 megawatts of solar at three properties.
NRG is also expected to announce a partnership with a California health care provider to generate up to 50 megawatts of distributed solar, a relationship formed through NRG’s eVgo electric-vehicle charging business, according to executives.
Fortune 500 companies are more comfortable signing a twenty-year offtake agreement with NRG knowing that their counterpart is also a Fortune 500 company, said Tom Doyle, CEO of NRG Renew.
“You don’t have that comfort level if you’re working with a pure-play renewable [company] that may have been in the space for five years, or with a small development shop,” he said.
Too much complexity and risk?
The tough part for NRG is convincing investors this strategy will deliver returns. Crane acknowledged that when NRG made its initial investments in large-scale solar in 2011 and 2012 (totaling more than $1 billion), investors weren’t sure how to value it.
Investors at last week’s meeting had more questions about the company’s next steps. Will NRG Home Solar eat into NRG’s existing retail electricity sales? And if there are so few barriers to entry in new markets, could pure-play solar companies with a head start win out?
Meanwhile, NRG’s conventional power generation business -- the second largest in the U.S. -- is getting squeezed by slow demand growth, low natural gas prices and looming carbon regulations.
Chief Operating Officer Mauricio Gutierrez reassured investors that NRG will continue to own and operate fossil fuel power plants.
Investors may have to put up with more complexity given NRG's shift beyond centralized generation. But Crane insisted that NRG's strategy is less risky than competitors banking on the status quo.
“The riskiest thing in energy, and any sector, is to ignore the future change coming to your industry,” he said. “NRG is preparing for this future.”