Power to the People

“Americans spend eight per cent of their disposable income on all forms of energy,” David Crane told me. Crane is the C.E.O. of NRG, the country’s biggest independent power provider; the company operates more than a hundred energy-generation facilities, selling electricity to utilities that, in turn, sell it to customers. Nobody wants that eight-per-cent figure to rise, Crane said, because when energy prices go up the country tends to trip into recession. But plenty of companies, including Crane’s, would like to see a larger slice of that eight per cent. “I’m interested in electric cars, for instance, not just because of the effect on air quality but because I want to take market share away from oil,” Crane said. “It’s a brutal fight for market share.”

Power utilities now face uncertainty of a kind that traditional phone companies faced when cellular technology emerged. A few utilities welcome the challenge; others are resisting it; and the rest are waiting for someone to tell them what to do.

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