Recharge4040: Craig Cornelius

NRG Energy is already North America’s largest owner of utility-scale solar assets. Craig Cornelius’ job is to help the company nurture (or acquire) new businesses with the potential to become leading players in other market segments, with a strong eye towards distributed generation.

Cornelius’ solar career began in the public sector, first with US space agency Nasa (a solar pioneer), and then the Department of Energy, where, still in his mid-20s, he oversaw a programme dishing out hundreds of millions of dollars each year in R&D funding.

In 2007 he left for the newly formed Hudson Clean Energy Partners, which quickly became the largest renewables-focused private-equity fund in the world.

During his six years there, the fund invested in a variety of renewables businesses, including the solar developer Recurrent Energy, which it sold to Japan’s Sharp in 2010 for $305m.

“What I found was that the job I liked best was working with management teams, actually building the companies, more than the transactional element of buying and selling them,” Cornelius, 35, tells Recharge.

And so last summer he joined NRG Energy as senior vice-president for new business development, a job that involves incubating new businesses within NRG’s vast operations.

Already one of the country’s largest generators of conventional power, but with a strong appreciation for the low-carbon pivot emerging in the energy world, NRG presciently swooped into utility-scale solar in a major way in 2009 — a time when a number of huge projects under development by First Solar, SunPower and others began looking for capital.

The past few years have seen NRG buying stakes in nearly every major US solar project in need of financing, from First Solar’s 290MW Agua Caliente (PV) to BrightSource’s 392MW Ivanpah (CSP).

NRG intends to keep its foot on the accelerator in utility-scale solar, and is also pressing hard into the US residential rooftop market. (In April it bought the country’s eighth-largest residential installer.)

But much of Cornelius’ time since joining has been spent honing the company’s approach to the burgeoning commercial and industrial (C&I) rooftop market — a segment in which NRG thinks it can rapidly carve out a large market share.

Although roughly the same size as the residential rooftop market, the C&I sector is vastly more fragmented — with no player having yet cracked a 10% market share. (By contrast, SolarCity controls more than a quarter of the residential rooftop market.)

Deals in the C&I segment can be tricky. Projects are smaller than in the utility-scale market, meaning developers have less time and resources to allocate to them. But the customers — the owners of sprawling factories, hotels, and malls — are more demanding than homeowners.

NRG has already announced a few major C&I clients, including MGM Resorts (owner of Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay) and Unilever. But Cornelius has worked feverishly over the past nine months to get “cookie-cutter” processes in place that will allow the company to speed along many more such deals, stealing a page from the residential market.

“There’s lots of reason to believe that as we look forward a couple more years, people will look to NRG as the dominant player in this segment in the US.”

Craig Cornelius is senior vice-president, business development at NRG Solar

Recharge4040 brings together the world's young new-energy pioneers from the worlds of renewables technology, finance, development, social engagement and advocacy. The list includes people from major wind and solar companies, banks, investment funds, crowd-funding platforms and governments. For the full list of nominees and news about the initiative, visit the 4040 website