It's understandable that Big Oil gets a bad rap when it comes to climate change. But investors that take a more nuanced approach will find transitioning toward renewable energy as quickly as possible will require the engagement -- and massive cash flows -- of oil multinationals.
The good news is that some of the world's largest oil and gas producers are investing billions in renewable energy assets, from offshore wind farms to solar energy to next-generation batteries. That bodes well for long-term shareholders of Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A) (RDS.B), Total (TTE -1.62%), and Equinor (EQNR -0.58%).
Unfortunately, other oil majors, such as Chevron (CVX -1.16%) and BP (BP -1.80%), don't appear to be taking renewable energy as seriously as their peers, despite talking the talk. That will become important sooner than investors might think.
Here's what well-crafted -- and not-so-well crafted -- renewables strategies look like.
Lacking a coherent strategy
Chevron says it's committed to renewable energy, and although that may be true in the long run, investors have yet to see much of a coherent strategy. The company has invested in five solar projects with a combined 73 megawatts (MW) of power capacity, owns a 16.5 MW wind farm, and has an equity stake in a 49 MW geothermal joint venture. That's...not very much renewable power capacity. For perspective, General Electric's largest onshore wind turbines pack a punch of 4.8 MW -- each.
The oil major has also invested in renewable fuels, but without much success. A project with Weyerhaeuser to turn byproducts from wood and paper production into biofuels didn't pan out, while Chevron's renewable diesel efforts have centered on blending the fuel at its refineries. That's a shame, considering renewable diesel -- which, unlike biodiesel, is chemically similar to petroleum-based diesel -- has proven lucrative for other companies.
Meanwhile, although BP makes Chevron's investments in renewable energy look like child's play, its efforts lag behind the transformative investments being made by other peers. BP produces about 205 million gallons of ethanol from three facilities in Brazil, which also burn agricultural waste to generate a decent amount of renewable electricity. But considering the United States produces over 15.5 billion gallons of ethanol each year, the investments don't come close to making the oil multinational a major global player in renewable fuels.
A mediocre footprint in renewable fuels isn't the only data point showing just how far the company has moved away from its former "Beyond Petroleum" pledge. The oil driller has equity stakes in just 1,432 MW of wind power in the United States, which amounts to only 1.5% of America's total installed wind capacity.
That said, a more airtight renewable energy strategy could be emerging. Earlier this year BP made a strategic investment in Lightsource, a global leader in developing and managing solar energy assets. It manages 2,000 MW of solar projects and has a backlog of approximately 6,000 MW. If the oil major invests heavily in bringing new projects online in the next several years and expanding that pipeline further, then it could be on a path to a renewable future -- even if it's a little behind some of its peers.
Leading the way to a cleaner future
Recent moves by Royal Dutch Shell are just enough to provide investors confidence that the company is indeed getting serious about renewable energy. Only weeks after BP acquired a stake in Lightsource, Holland's oil leader announced it had acquired a 44% stake in Silicon Ranch, a solar developer. While it owns only 880 MW of projects and has a backlog of just 1,000 MW more, it pairs nicely with two recent acquisitions.
In 2017 Royal Dutch Shell acquired First Utility, an electric utility in the United Kingdom with over 800,000 customers. It also acquired MP2 Energy, which owns natural gas distribution infrastructure and develops tools and projects for distributed solar. Demand-response software and related networks and know-how could be a difference maker for companies looking to profitably scale solar power. That could help make Silicon Ranch's already-growing footprint and its just-planted seed in the utility space the foundations upon which this oil supermajor builds a renewable energy future.
Meanwhile, whenever a multi-billion oil company is willing to change its name that should be enough to prove it's serious about renewable energy. That's exactly the move Statoil, now Equinor, made, removing "oil" from its name. And it's more than an empty gesture.
Equinor is a leading developer of offshore wind farms. It's a largely untapped source of renewable energy (in 2017 the world had just 19,000 MW of offshore wind capacity, compared to 495,000 MW of onshore wind capacity), but it could be one of the most important. A 100 MW offshore wind farm can generate more electricity than a comparably sized power plant burning coal or natural gas -- something solar or onshore wind can't match.
The company is hoping the efficency of offshore wind, combined with its early mover status, will provide a long-term edge in the field as offshore projects become more economical to construct. Equinor is building a 1,000 MW offshore wind farm just 20 miles off the coast of Long Island, NY. When completed, the Empire Wind project will power over 1 million homes with renewable energy -- and boost global offshore wind capacity by 5%.
Meanwhile, no oil multinational excels at forward-thinking quite like Total. The French energy giant has long been a major investor in renewable energy, as demonstrated by its 56% stake in solar panel manufacturer SunPower, $1.1 billion acquisition of energy storage developer Saft, and various (so far underwhelming) investments in synthetic biology tech aimed at renewable fuels production.
Investors that look more closely will see that it has the most coherent long-term strategy among Big Oil companies. Total is not-so-quietly shifting its operations to gas and liquefied natural gas (LNG), while simultaneously laying the groundwork to become a gas and electric utility in Europe. It already has all the gas it needs to supply its investments further down the value chain, but expect a healthy dose of renewable energy generation assets from wind, solar, and solar-plus storage to play a significant role in the energy company's ultra-long-term transition away from liquid transportation fuels.
There's still a long way to go
Investors wouldn't invest in any of these companies today for their renewable energy ambitions alone; each business is still overwhelmingly driven by oil and gas production. However, it's worthwhile to consider clean energy initiatives when looking for tiebreakers among the top oil stocks. And in the long term, energy multinationals with a solid foundation in renewable energy production will have an indisputable advantage over peers that dragged their feet or didn't take renewables seriously. On that basis, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, and Equinor are on solid trajectories, while Chevron and BP have some catching up to do.