Big Oil Goes Green: A Growing Trend in Renewable Investments

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These days, it seems the only time we hear from oil companies is when they are advertising their participation in clean energy development. BP has been running renewable ads for a handful of years, now — no doubt partially spurred by its poor public image, which is still recovering from the Deepwater Horizon incident. In the last year, the trend appears to be catching; a salient example is Shell’s “Make the Future” campaign, which proposes finding “answers to tomorrow’s energy challenges” through “the power of people’s ingenuity”, even going as far as acknowledging the reality of climate change.

A skeptical observer might view these campaigns and as an industry’s desperate attempt to stay relevant and relatable, rather than a genuine reflection of aspirations for investments moving forward. There is certainly validity in the first argument, but the reality is that there is truth to both assessments.

While they are not the only fossil fuel company to do so, Royal Dutch Shell is a great case study of a company who has publicly put (at least some of) their money where their mouth is, when it comes to more progressive energy development. Last year, they announced the formation of a new division, which will focus solely on investing in renewable and low carbon technologies. Shell has already committed $1.7 billion and has earmarked roughly $200 million, annually, towards expanding its renewables, with eyes set on growing its wind and solar holdings.

In addition to expanding their renewable technology investment, Shell has also made financial commitments to reducing the carbon footprint of its conventional practices. Recently, the company released plans to tie executive bonuses to carbon reduction efforts. Shell CEO, Ben Van Beurden, attributes this plan, along with their new interest in renewables, to investor demands, stating “Shareholders have been increasingly vocal in recent years over climate change, calling on the company to report regularly on the likes of emission management and related investment strategies.”

Shell is certainly not the only fossil fuel company who is thinking this way, and it hasn’t only benefitted traditional wind and solar. Norwegian oil company Statoil has decided to take advantage of their offshore experience to dip their toe into offshore wind development in Scotland. In France, oil giant Total made a longer term, higher risk investment when it acquired battery storage company Saft. This move followed Total’s successful foray into solar with their 2011 investment in SunPower.

Clearly, this shift in strategy is not just about saving public face. While the good PR certainly doesn’t hurt, the strategies seem to be genuine business decisions, based on expectations of a carbon free (or at least greatly reduced) future. Even Saudi Arabia is pulling money out of oil, selling off $2 trillion in oil assets to create a wealth fund. Saudi Arabia, of course, is not a banded oil company and has less incentive to keep further investments in the energy sector. But, while this investment fund will not necessarily invest in renewables, the move is certainly indicative of world oil players’ desire to explore other avenues.

As fossil fuel companies around the world test the waters of becoming more diversified “energy” companies. We must remember that they still have their training wheels on. Many have scoffed at the relative size of their renewable investments, and this is a fair critique; Shell’s $200 million a year investment is put into perspective by the fact that they paid Shareholders $9.37 billion in dividends in 2015. Total’s 1.1 billion dollar deal with Saft is dwarfed by their $120 billion market value.

While these numbers hardly seem inspiring, the flip side is the immense potential offered by fossil fuel investments. Much like the new model of private equities investing in PPA’s, traditional oil companies can represent an untapped revenue source (Total’s deal with SunPower looked a lot like this model). As the realities of our energy trends continue to force these companies to evolve or die, we can expect to see these companies to make more substantial leaps into renewables.

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