Some of the oil majors have invested heavily in renewables, such as wind and solar, as they look to transition towards cleaner energy sources
Oil and gas is often painted as the dirtiest sector within the energy industry, but major companies have begun to invest in renewable technologies in a bid to clean up the economy.
Of the six “super-majors” – BP, Shell, Chevron, Total, Eni and Exxon – many of them have pumped billions into clean energy projects, although question marks remain over whether they are doing enough.
Despite the growth in renewables, “big oil” only spent 1% of its combined budget on green energy schemes in 2018.
Matthias J Pickl, economics professor at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia, wrote a report in November 2019 discussing whether oil companies are transforming themselves into energy firms.
Titled The renewable energy strategies of oil majors – From oil to energy?, it highlighted how wind and solar are taking an increasingly important role in the energy industry, and that oil majors are “progressively positioning themselves for the proclaimed energy transition”.
“Oil firms are essentially attempting to figure out how the best presently available cash cow in the world can be replaced for the benefit of their own sustainable future,” he wrote in the report.
“Furthermore, growing concerns about climate change following the Paris Agreement may provide an additional drive for such strategy to hedge against hardening investor sentiment towards carbon emissions.”
Here, NS Energy looks into how each of the six oil majors have invested in renewable energy projects.
Major oil companies’ investments in renewable energy projects
BP was the first oil major to commit significant capital to renewable projects, such as wind and solar, from 1980 onwards.
Formerly known as the British Petroleum Company, it rebranded to Beyond Petroleum in 2001 with a look towards other energy sources beyond oil.
In the aftermath of the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill incident in the Gulf of Mexico, BP closed most of its previous green energy investments, believed to be worth about $8bn to $10bn.
But the company still has more than 2200 megawatts (MW) of wind capacity in the US and has started to re-invest in renewables in recent years.
It spent $200m in 2017 on acquiring a 43% stake in Lightsource, which has rebranded to Lightsource BP and is Europe’s largest solar power project developer.
In 2018, the firm made three investments to prepare for a low-carbon future.
The first of which was a $20m investment in StoreDot, an Israeli developer of rapid-charging batteries.
BP then made a $5m investment in US company FreeWire, which makes fast-charging infrastructure for electric vehicles.
And finally, $160m was spent on acquiring Chargemaster, the UK’s leading network of charging points.
This allowed the oil firm an opportunity to combine Chargemaster’s 6,500 charging points network with its 1,200 petrol stations.
Shell’s investment target for green energy projects was set between $4bn and $6bn for the period from 2016 until the end of 2020 – but with less than a year to go, The Guardian says the sum is “well below” those figures.
The Anglo-Dutch firm’s 2016 New Energies strategy covers several areas including electricity, wind and solar, electric vehicle charging, and initiatives to encourage the adoption of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.
It spent a reported $2bn on setting up a low-carbon energy and electricity generation business in 2016 – ensuring it was on course to meet its targets at the time.
The following year, it acquired UK-based electricity and gas provider First Utility, as well as Europe’s largest electric vehicle charging company NewMotion.
In 2018, Shell bought a 44% stake in US solar power firm Silicon Ranch for $200m and made a $20m equity investment in India-based renewable power company Husk Power Systems.
Total’s plan for renewables is to invest $500m a year in clean energy technologies.
That figure is about 3% of the French oil major’s total capital expenditure, with plans in place to ramp that up to 20% over the next 20 years.
Over the past 10 years, it has made a number of strategic investments, which included $1.4bn being spent on acquiring a 60% stake in US solar firm SunPower in 2011.
Total is aiming to become a global integrated leader in solar power and has 1.6 gigawatts (GW) worth of capacity, and plans to increase that to 5GW over the next five years.
In 2016, it purchased French battery manufacturer Saft for $1.1bn and bought Belgian green power utility Lampiris for $224m.
Total acquired a 74% stake in the French electricity retailer Direct Energie for $1.7bn in 2018, propelling the company forward into being one of the top utility providers in France.
Although Eni is not quite up to speed with its rival oil majors, the Italian company has plans in place to invest further in renewable technologies.
In 2014, it launched the world’s first conversion of a traditional refinery to a biorefinery that produces jet fuel, green diesel, green naphtha and liquid petroleum gas.
With an eye on growing its onshore and offshore wind capacity, Eni formed partnerships with France-based GE Renewable Energy and Norwegian energy company Equinor.
Clean energy sources play a key role in the firm’s corporate strategy and it is targeting to deliver 1GW of installed renewable power capacity between 2018 and 2021 by investing €1.2bn ($1.3bn), with a long-term goal of reaching 5GW by 2025.
Chevron’s investments in renewables have been relatively scarce, with no target in place for a move to cleaner technology.
The US firm has invested in solar, wind and geothermal projects over the past 20 years but, following low returns, the focus has remained on its oil and gas business.
In 2018, Chevron launched a Future Energy Fund, with an initial commitment of $100m set aside to invest in breakthrough technologies that will reduce carbon emissions and provide cleaner energy.
Like its US counterpart, Exxon has shown very little interest in investing in renewable energy technologies, with no budget or time-scale planned for future projects.
The company’s strategy revolves around reducing greenhouse gas emissions, advancing biofuels, and carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Exxon holds interests in about a third of the world’s CCS capacity and captured 6.9 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide for sequestration – the process of separating the gas from the atmosphere – in 2015.
In 2019, it announced plans to develop carbon capture fuel cell technology, which produces power and captures and concentrates CO2 for storage – resulting in potential cost reductions.