The Future of Clean Energy Rests on Consumers and Electric Vehicles

The future of the green technology industry rests on consumers, and a big part of that will be how consumers embrace electric vehicles, said David Crane, CEO of power company NRG Energy (s nrg) (who will also be speaking at Green:Net 2011 on April 21 in San Francisco). Crane made the remarks at the Jefferies Global Clean Technology Conference in New York City on Wednesday and also said, “The green technology industry needs to improve its interface with the American consumer.”

American consumers don’t want things forced on them by the government, but they are slowly starting to become aware of energy issues via the rising cost of energy and the geo-political climate, said Crane. “Everyone in this room has a vested interest in electric vehicles becoming successful,” said Crane to the room largely made up by investors, and the future is “all about electric vehicles.”

In comparison, Crane pointed to the organic food industry, which he said was in the same place in the early ’90s that the electric car industry is in today. In 1992, organic food was ignored by the global supermarket businesses, said Crane, but today, organic food makes up some 12 percent of overall super market food sales; “12 percent of an enormous industry is an enormous number.”

The auto industry is actually taking the electric vehicle market seriously for the first time, and it’s a much different world from the one in the ’90s when GM (s gm) recalled a car the company didn’t want to make, said Crane. “What company in this room has the market power to buy ads during Monday night football, or the Superbowl?” asked Crane. “I don’t. But that’s what Nissan has been doing,” with the LEAF.

Crane’s sentiments about how greentech is going to “go mainstream,” are something I’ve been thinking about recently. A cleantech investor friend of mine told me last week, “if one of the new electric cars is just a little bit successful and starts selling hundreds of thousands of units a year, that would blow all other greentech product sales out of the water.”

Crane urged the tech execs and investors in the room to focus more heavily on improving the greentech industry’s relationship with the American consumer. “You can’t count on a steady stream of state policy. The focus shouldn’t be on government, but on the American consumer. We’re getting to a point where cleantech needs to stand on its own.”

NRG, of course, is making a bet on electric vehicles. The power company is building its EVGO electric car charging network in Houston, and hoping that by offering consumers a cheaper electric fuel option than using gas for traditional cars, consumers will see the economic benefit. For $80 per month, we’ll offer customers all-you-can eat charging at home and at public charging stations, while average Americans spend $100 to $120 per month on gas, said Crane. We could offer it for far less, but most of the cost will go into paying off the cost of building the home and public chargers over three years, he said.

NRG is also selling clean power to consumers in Texas via its Green Mountain Energy division; that company is showing 31 percent CAGR (compound annual growth rate) said Crane. Selling EV charging and clean power can help diversify NRG’s portfolio away from volatile natural gas prices and into potentially higher growth businesses, and Crane said he saw green businesses being 25 percent of the company’s business by the middle part of this decade. “Opportunities abound for green retail,” said Crane.

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Image courtesy of D.Goligorsky via Creative Commons license.