BP Headed for Greener Pastures

Yesterday, BP Alternative Energy, a subsidiary of London-based oil giant BP (NYSE: BP  ) , announced two separate and unrelated deals which, when taken together, highlight the company's growing commitment to renewable energy.

Of wind and gas
The first item reported that American Electric Power (NYSE: AEP  ) signed a long-term power purchase agreement to buy a total of 200 megawatts from the Fowler Ridge Wind Farm. This is noteworthy because Fowler Ridge is owned by BP Alternative Energy, and it's just one of the company's five new wind-power development projects in the United States. This suggests that BP's strategy to become a leader in wind power -- as evidenced by its acquisition earlier this year of Orion Energy's 1,300 MW of wind power -- is beginning to bear fruit.

The second news item announced yesterday revealed that BP Alternative Energy will be partnering with Powerspan to develop and commercialize carbon dioxide capture technology for power plants.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, the pilot plant will only be capable of storing 20 tons of CO2 a day. Nevertheless, the project offers further proof that BP is getting serious about finding ways to profit in a carbon-constrained future.

Sunny days ahead?
Another way the company is looking to profit from clean energy is by moving aggressively into solar energy. It might even surprise some investors to learn that BP Solar -- a key business with BP Alternative Energy -- is already one of the largest and most profitable solar companies in the world. Moreover, it's clear that the company is determined to maintain this position, and its growing strength could make life a little uncomfortable for some of the more modest-sized solar companies such as Evergreen Solar and Trina Solar.

In 2006, BP Solar signed a deal with REC Corp to supply it with silicon for the next five years, and the company plans to invest $8 billion in wind, solar, and hydrogen power over the next decade. Currently, it's teaming up with the California Institute of Technology to develop radical new nanotechnology-based methods for manufacturing solar cells and modules.

The company's research is so promising that the U.S. Department of Energy selected BP Solar for the America Initiative Award. The DOE granted the company up to $7.5 million in phase 1 for their 3-phase $40 million project to decrease the cost of solar power.

Fueling a new future
As impressive as BP's solar and wind programs are, they pale in comparison to the immense opportunity that awaits the company in the field of biofuels. BP is, after all, still primarily an oil and gas company, and it only makes sense that it's interested in pursuing commercial opportunities in this area.

In 2006, BP announced a joint project with DuPont (NYSE: DD  ) to develop a new technology for making biobutanol. If successful, the new biofuel could find a sizeable market because it has both a higher net energy density than ethanol and it can be shipped in existing pipelines (unlike ethanol, which, because of its high water content, must be shipped by truck or rail). This, in turn, could be bad news for smaller ethanol companies, including VeraSun (NYSE: VSE  ) and Aventine Renewable Energy (NYSE: AVR  ) , which might be pinched if ethanol loses some market share to biobutanol.

So far this year, BP has also announced two additional deals in the field of biofuels that bear watching. The first occurred in January when BP announced it would be directing $500 million to the University of California and the University of Illinois to explore the creation of new fuels from different crops and even microbes.

If the latter idea sounds a little, well, different, it's worth noting that BP also recently invested an undisclosed amount in Synthetic Genomics, a promising new company founded by former Celera Genomics co-founder and president Craig Venter, which is seeking to design, synthesize, and assemble "designer bacteria" that create various biofuels, including ethanol and hydrogen, in a single, simple step.

To be sure, the technology is still a ways off, but it's possible that just as Venter was able to speed the Human Genome Project to a rapid conclusion back in 2001 (beating many experts predictions by more than four years), he and his company might also surprise people with how soon synthetic genomics could produce a commercial breakthrough.

Foolish bottom line
BP is a $210 billion company and, given its heavy reliance on the oil and gas business for the preponderance of its revenue, it would be a stretch to consider the company a cleantech investment. However, with over 8% of its revenues now being generated from renewable energy, it does offer traditional energy investors a legitimate way to dip their toe into the renewable energy market.

Furthermore, because of its growing commitment to solar, wind, and biofuels, that 8% figure is likely to grow over the coming years. With a down-to-earth P/E ratio of just over 10 -- which is about 15% lower than ExxonMobil's (NYSE: XOM  ) and ConocoPhillips' (NYSE: COP  ) P/E ratio -- it offers a relatively low level of risk at an attractive price.              

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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich does not own stock in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.


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