Oil major BP (BP.) announces a $200m investment in Europe’s largest solar power developer as it returns to a space it exited six years ago.

The UK energy firm is set to buy a 43% stake in London-based Lightsource which is developing solar projects in the US, Europe and Asia. It follows Royal Dutch Shell’s (RDSB) October purchase of European electric vehicle charging business NewMotion and French counterpart Total’s September €237.5m deal for a 23% holding in French renewables specialist Eren.

These are very modest investments in the context of the billions these companies spend every year but are interesting in terms of the wider context as they suggest they are at least thinking about a post-fossil fuel future again.

Given the toxic reputation of the likes of BP and Shell among environmental campaigners it may surprise you to learn that both companies could be included in a list of the largest global investors in renewables in the eighties, nineties and early noughties.

Arguably this ‘greener’ trend reached its zenith with BP’s ‘Beyond Petroleum’ public relations campaign which launched in July 2000. While both companies paid lip service to the need to progress to more sustainable sources of energy they continued to invest a much greater proportion of their cash in hydrocarbons. More recently the renewables strategy had largely been abandoned.

TURNING AWAY FROM RENEWABLES

At an annual strategy meeting in March 2009 Shell announced it would no longer invest in wind, solar and hydro power because they were not economic. Instead it outlined plans to invest in biofuels and carbon capture.

In 2009 BP Alternative Energy was scrapped as a stand-alone business; in 2011 BP Solar was closed down because it didn’t make money; and in 2013 BP put all its US wind farms up for sale (though it subsequently shelved this planned divestment after failing to secure an acceptable price).

In 2005 BP committed to spending $8bn on renewables by 2015 but having achieved that milestone with an $8.3bn outlay through to 2013 it has not set a new target.

Shell’s recent strategy has been to target natural gas instead as it seeks to put itself on a sustainable footing for the future. In a June 2015 speech Shell chief executive Ben van Beurden said of natural gas: ‘It is flexible. Its supply is abundant and diverse. Its range of uses is still expanding. It is a low-carbon, clean-burning ally to renewables such as solar and wind. And it makes economic sense.'


Issue Date: 15 Dec 2017