Is the future of energy in Haiti?

September 30, 2013: 5:30 AM ET

On the road with NRG CEO David Crane, who is working to revive the hurricane-wracked country -- and using it to develop power ideas for the rest of the world.

By David Whitford, editor-at-large

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The structure outside the new kindergarten building at Union des Apotres elementary school provides shade below and supports solar panels above.

FORTUNE -- David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, has been been in Haiti a lot since the 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 and left 1.5 million homeless, and he never goes alone. In June he led a posse of volunteers drawn from NRG's 8,000 employees via an essay contest. In August he went back with his teenage daughter and some of her classmates from Choate. In mid-September, he brought along a group of wealthy friends, NGO leaders, corporate executives -- and me.

We spent two days traveling around in a caravan of black and white SUVs visiting humanitarian projects where NRG (NRG) and Crane are involved. Later we all got an email from a member of the group, Bechtel CFO Mike Adams, listing concrete ways we could help at one of the schools we saw: $14,000 for toilets; $4,000 so kids can wash their hands before they eat; $3,500 to construct a rainwater collection facility. Adams, the Crane family, and Christina Weiss Lurie, co-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, came up with $25,000 to outfit the kitchen and pay for the high fence that surrounds the school. The biggest item on the wish list was $100,000 to build and stock a tilapia fish farm. Crane, who has lots of friends in the NFL, is hoping four teams will pony up $25,000 each; so far two have.

NRG's focus is electricity, naturally. Since it first pledged $1 million to Haiti relief in 2010, the company has installed solar power systems in an orphanage, a hospital, a fish farm, a vegetable farm, and 21 schools.

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Haiti's grid is spotty and unreliable. Like most Caribbean countries, it relies heavily on fossil fuels to generate electricity. NRG does, too; measured by carbon emissions, it's among the dirtiest power producers in the world.

But lately Crane has been leading a big push toward renewables. NRG Solar, a wholly owned subsidiary, is partners with Google (GOOG), BrightSource and Bechtel in the largest solar thermal power plant in the world, a massive complex in California's Mojave Desert that passed an important milestone in September when it tied in to the grid for the first time. Once fully operational, it will provide enough electricity for 140,000 homes.

NRG is still betting big on traditional, centralized power production. But it's also placing a side bet on what's known as distributed generation -- small, smart, sustainable systems that connect to a mini-grid or no grid at all. And here's where NRG's Haiti mission moves beyond mere charity to strategic self-interest: Haiti is a testing ground for distributed solar.

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One of the stops we made was at Union Des Apotres (Union of Apostles), an elementary school in Cité Soleil, a vast slum on the coastal plain west of Port-au-Prince. The school has a beautiful new campus for 300 students, partly paid for (and brightly painted in shades of yellow, rose, and blue) by NRG, Happy Heart's Fund (supermodel Petra Nemcova's charity; she spoke briefly, in Creole), and Urban Zen (that's Donna Karan's; she couldn't be there). Because the sun was unbearable, the ceremony took place outside the kindergarten building beneath a metal canopy that serves two purposes: shade below, solar-panel mounting structure above. The 17-killowatt system NRG installed at Union Des Apotres generates more than enough power to run the school. A battery back-up system stores enough overflow to keep things running at least 36 hours without sunlight.

After the ceremony, I spoke to Robyn Beavers, an energetic young engineer with a Stanford MBA who was working on water purification systems for Segway inventor Dean Kamen when she quit last spring to join NRG. Crane set her up at an old power plant building in San Francisco, far from the company's headquarters in Princeton, N.J. There Beavers leads a small team of engineers working on a project code-named Station A. Her mission: To develop a viable non-grid future for NRG. "We're not just, like, playing around to increase valuation," Beaver told me. "We're trying to overhaul the energy infrastructure." And what better place to experiment than where the need is greatest. "This is not a theoretical market assessment," she said about the work NRG is doing in Haiti. "It's tangible technologies. You need to build stuff to learn how to make it better."

Solar holds great promise not only for Haiti, whose skies are clear on average 71% of daylight hours, but for its region -- and beyond. Building on lessons learned in Haiti, NRG just announced a partnership with Bermudian telecom Digicel to develop renewable energy projects throughout the Caribbean.

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Beavers sees the present as "a beautiful moment in time, " a 10-20-year period during which the developing world's need to build an energy infrastructure from scratch intersects with the developed world's need to replace the aging infrastructure it already has. "You can have that Bam! impact," she says excitedly. "You can reinvent power around the world in various markets, settings and places, and you can do it by looking at a set of modular systems and solutions. It's so exciting, but it's a fleeting window."

Did you hear that? What helps Haiti might one day help us all. That would be beautiful indeed.

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If you're so-moved, check out PRODEV Haiti, a locally led non-profit that partners with NRG, the Clinton Foundation, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. PRODEV's focus is education in a country where more than one-third of the population are school-age children, though half of them are not in school, and 60% who do enroll never make it to the end of sixth grade.

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