National Oilwell Varco (NYSE:NOV) is one of the leading equipment suppliers to the global oil and gas sector. It primarily focuses on providing that industry with the products it needs to continue operating.

However, the company isn't unaware of what's going on outside the oil patch. It knows full well that the global economy is slowing pivoting away from fossil fuels toward cleaner renewable energy sources. The company's CEO, Clay Williams, addressed this transition on its recent fourth-quarter conference call with investors. Though instead of discussing it as a threat, he called it one of the biggest business opportunities of this century.   

A person holding a globe with renewable energy images around it an a cityscape in the background.

Image source: Getty Images.

Looking for ways to capture the opportunity of a lifetime

Williams stated on the call that "an energy transition is emerging as potentially the most valuable and interesting business opportunity of the 21st century." He noted that there is a lot of debate on the speed and scale of the transition. Some industry watchers, for example, believe we're barreling toward a future where renewable energy "fully displaces fossil fuels." This view probably "further diminishes the option value of oilfield assets at least in the minds of some investors." 

Williams, on the other hand, states: 

The shape and pace of that transition are probably going to surprise us all. In the near term, oil and gas remain critical fuels that play a key role in, for instance, air travel and feeding the planet. So, they will be part of the energy mix for many years, perhaps generations to come.

However, even though Williams believes that fossil fuels will play a major part in fueling the global economy, he sees an enticing opportunity for National Oilwell Varco in renewables. That's why he stated that a "small but important element to our strategy ... is figuring out how NOV can capitalize on this and how we can make money by facilitating it." He added, "We quietly launched this initiative a few years ago to play offense rather than defense against this emerging backdrop."

He also noted that the company isn't "spending much money in this area" right now but has been "very encouraged" by what it's developing. It has already found some success, including winning contracts for an equipment package on one of the world's largest offshore wind turbine installation vessels. 

An offshore wind farm.

Image source: Getty Images.

Investing in the future of energy

National Oilwell Varco is one of a growing number of fossil fuel-focused companies that have already started investing in renewable energy to profit from the sector's growth. Canadian energy infrastructure giant Enbridge (NYSE:ENB), for example, has invested $7.8 billion Canadian ($5.6 billion) on renewable energy and power transmission projects since 2002, enabling it to become one of Canada's largest renewable energy producers. It has also been investing in European offshore wind farms, and has projects in the UK and Germany currently operating and several more in France in development. 

Equinor (NYSE:EQNR), the largest oil producer in Norway, has also been growing its renewable energy business over the past several years. It currently powers more than 1 million European homes with renewable offshore wind from four farms in the UK and Germany. It also owns stakes in solar energy plants in Brazil and Argentina. Equinor, meanwhile, recently announced an acceleration of its transition to cleaner energy, with it aiming to boost its renewable energy generating capacity 10-fold by 2026 and targetting to reach carbon neutrality in its global operations by 2030. 

French oil and gas giant Total (NYSE:TOT) has also been pumping money into renewable energy over the past several years. The company has invested in or acquired several renewable energy companies, including holding a majority stake in leading solar panel manufacturer SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR). It recently set an ambitious target of having 25 gigawatts of renewable energy generating capacity by 2025, up from its current level of 3 gigawatts. These investments will help Total achieve its goal of having low-carbon energy sources contribute 15% to 20% of its sales by 2040. 

A potentially game-changing profit opportunity

The oil and gas industry has fueled the economy for more than a century. While it will likely remain vital for the foreseeable future, renewables are starting to gain ground. This transition, which is still in the very early stages, is exciting for investors because it has the potential to be a major wealth creator. That's why they should follow the example of these fossil fuel-focused companies and start looking for ways to invest in this exciting sector.