Why some oil companies are investing in renewables

If electric cars are adopted by mass-market buyers in years to come, that will lead to notably lower oil consumption. So what are oil companies doing to prepare for that possible outcome?

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters/File
A view of the ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown, Texas.

If electric cars are adopted by mass-market buyers in years to come, that will lead over time to notably lower oil consumption.

So what are oil companies doing to prepare for that possible outcome?

Some continue to doubt whether electric cars will constitute a serious threat to their business in the coming decades—but others are branching out into fields beyond fossil fuels.

ExxonMobil takes a fairly dismissive view of electric cars, predicting in a recent report that they will only account for 10 percent of U.S. new-car sales in 2040.

Consequently, Exxon hasn't shown much interest in investments related to electric cars or renewable energy.

But some of the oil giant's European competitors appear to be preparing for a future where fossil fuels play a reduced role in transportation and energy.

French oil company Total purchased solar-panel maker SunPower in 2011, and last year purchased battery maker Saft in a deal estimated to be worth $1 billion.

Total has said it plans to use Saft battery packs for energy storage, which would complement the SunPower solar-panel business.

Many analysts believe pairing renewable-energy sources with energy storage is key, because the ability to store electricity for later use addresses the intermittent availability of wind or sunlight.

Total is also considering installing electric-car charging stations at some of its fuel stations in France, while Royal Dutch Shell has already committed to adding charging stations at certain locations in the U.K. and The Netherlands.

Both oil companies are also members of the Hydrogen Council, a consortium of 13 companies established to promote fuel cells.

Norwegian oil giant Statoil has interests in several offshore wind farms, and is testing a floating wind turbine called HyWind.

The company has used its expertise with offshore oil platforms to aid these projects, and claims to have achieved a 30-percent cost reduction between 2011 and 2017.

BP is also looking to ramp up its wind-energy portfolio, about 15 years after its ill-fated "Beyond Petroleum" effort.

A combination of low oil prices in the early 2000s and the relative immaturity of renewable-energy technologies caused that first attempt to sputter.

Whether large oil companies end up with smaller businesses or simply shift their focus from oil to natural gas remains to be seen.

This story originally appeared on GreenCarReports.

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