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Low NatGas Price Hurting NRG Profits, Stock

Low natural gas prices continue to be the leading cause of sour financial results for wholesale/retail power supplier NRG Energy Inc., according to CEO David Crane.

Crane made that assertion during an earnings conference call Friday in which Princeton, NJ-based NRG again reported a quarterly loss.

The red ink, along with what Crane considers continued under-valued common stock prices, are directly tied to the recent downward trend in wholesale gas prices. There remains a "significant disconnect  or distortion" between NRG's "performance and prospects" on the one hand and the commodity price curves that Wall Street uses to view the company and anticipate its performance.

NRG stock has plummeted some 50% since last winter because "we live in a sub-$3 gas price environment," Crane said. There are other factors contributing to the poor performance, but low-priced gas is highest on the list. "It has demonstrably contributed to the near-term financial performance,” he said.

NRG reported a 1Q2015 loss of $120 million compared to a loss of $56 million for the same period last year, but Crane and other senior executives on the call stressed the company's $840 million of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization during the quarter, compared to $817 in the same period in 2014.

Crane said there had been "outstanding execution" across all NRG businesses (independent power generation, home retail, home solar, renewables, NRG Yield and corporate). He stressed a well hedged baseload generation fleet and ongoing implementation of repowering programs, particularly in California.

In response to analysts' questions about the Carlsbad, CA, repowering program, Crane said he was not concerned about the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on Thursday delaying a decision on a 20-year power purchase tolling deal NRG has struck with Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas & Electric Co. (see Daily GPI, May 8).

"We certainly support [CPUC] President [Michael] Picker's proposed decision, and I think they will make a decision in a couple of weeks," said Crane, noting he hopes the decision goes the right way because it is the right solution for Southern California in the absence of San Onofre nuclear plant being closed.

"If the CPUC goes the other way, the project is not dead, it is just the path for approval becomes longer and a little more opaque. We certainly hope for California and ourselves that is not the case."

In response to another question on NRG's other proposed repowering along the Southern California coast, the gas-fired Mandalay plant at Oxnard northwest of Malibu, Crane and other NRG executives said this project is several years behind Carlsbad and should not be impacted by the CPUC commissioners' increasing reluctance to approve new fossil fuel generation plants.

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