Renewable energy seems like a slam dunk, right? Governments around the world have adopted aggressive goals to reduce carbon emissions. High gas prices have made electric vehicles more attractive to many Americans. Meanwhile, the costs of wind and solar have come down so much that they're a cheaper alternative for energy production than fossil fuels.
Despite these trends, Warren Buffett's recent investing activity could lead one to conclude that he's not convinced about this supposed slam dunk. Is Buffett betting against renewable energy?
Yes to Big Oil
There's no question that Buffett has become a big fan of Big Oil lately. Chevron (CVX 0.20%) now ranks as the fifth-largest holding in Berkshire Hathaway's (BRK.A 0.48%) (BRK.B 0.39%) portfolio. Buffett didn't begin building a position in the oil stock until late 2020.
But the multibillionaire investor seems to be even more smitten with Occidental Petroleum (OXY 1.02%) in recent months. Berkshire went on a buying frenzy in the first quarter, scooping up more than 136 million shares of Occidental. This activity continued into Q2. Berkshire now owns nearly 182 million shares of the oil company -- enough to give it a 19.4% stake.
These purchases prompted online business magazine Quartz to publish an article earlier this month with the headline, "Warren Buffett's big bets on oil are betraying the climate." In the article, Samanth Subramanian wrote that Buffett is "doubling down on fossil fuels when the rest of the world is trying to divest from it."
No to electric vehicles?
In Buffett's most recent letter to Berkshire shareholders, he stated that Berkshire Hathaway Energy (BHE) owned 225 million shares of Chinese electric vehicle (EV) maker BYD (BYDDY -0.33%). This amounts to roughly 7.7% of the company.
Berkshire Hathaway vice-chairman Charlie Munger first recommended BYD back in 2008. Buffett agreed with the pick. And it's been a huge winner for Berkshire through the years.
However, on July 11, 2022, a major sell transaction for BYD was registered on Hong Kong's Clearing and Settlement System. The number of shares being sold was... 225 million. This understandably led to widespread speculation that Berkshire was exiting its position in BYD.
It's still not clear if Buffett is actually selling Berkshire's big stake in BYD. No regulatory filing of the transaction has been filed. Some analysts think Berkshire could be lending its shares to short-sellers. Others, though, believe that a full exit is on the way.
So is Buffett really betting against renewable energy? I don't think so. Drilling down into the details explains why.
Buffett's record shows that his involvement with oil stocks is often temporary. For example, in 2020, Berkshire sold all of its previous stake in Occidental. Buffett doesn't seem to view Oxy, Chevron, or any other oil and gas company as a "forever" stock. He's simply riding the current wave driven by increased fuel prices to boost Berkshire's returns.
Even if Berkshire sells its stake in BYD, the company still has a significant position in another big electric vehicle maker -- General Motors (GM 2.13%). Many investors overlook GM as an EV stock. However, the company ranked third in U.S. EV sales last year and is spending heavily to become an even bigger player in the market.
More importantly, Buffett referred to BHE as one of Berkshire's "four giants" in his latest letter to shareholders. He noted that BHE is now "a leading force in wind, solar and transmission" and "has long been making climate-conscious moves that soak up all of its earnings." The reality is that Buffett is betting on renewable energy rather than against it.