The heads of big energy companies including Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and BP are coming under increasing pressure to up investments in energy sources other than fossil fuels, even though they fear doing so could hurt profits and dividends. The pressure from lawmakers, environmentalists and perhaps even some investors comes amid signs renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are becoming more cost competitive with coal and natural gas.
In 2015, new installations of renewable energy capacity overtook coal for the first time ever, the International Energy Agency said last month, as governments around the world attempt to cut carbon emissions blamed by scientists for warming the Earth’s atmosphere.
Shell has reduced its carbon footprint via its greater focus on natural gas—a cleaner-burning fossil fuel than oil and coal—which now accounts for just over half of its portfolio. Looking further out, Van Beurden said the company will continue to add more gas to its energy mix. He also singled out biofuels and new technologies such as hydrogen fuels as potential large growth areas for the company.
“The growth of renewables has been remarkable, and luckily so, but the capacity of the industry to make money in that segment has been remarkably absent,” Van Beurden said during a panel discussion. “And we will need to find a way to participate in a renewables-dominated energy system in a way that continues to allow us to make profits and pay dividends.”
Still, Van Beurden said he expected solar “will be the main backbone of the energy system in the second half of the century”. Shell, he said, would rather apply renewable technology via hybrid systems with natural gas, instead of investing in technologies such as solar in their own right.
The profitability of renewable energy companies was brought to the fore in April when SunEdison, one of America’s biggest green power companies, filed for bankruptcy after buckling under $16 billion of debt. Industry advocates, however, said the collapse was not a reflection of the wider sector and had more to do with a debt-fueled acquisitions binge.
At the conference in Paris, Paddy Padmanathan, the CEO of Saudi-based solar power developer Acwa Power International, said his company was indeed making money. “I did talk to [Van Beurden] for a few minutes as he was leaving to point out that we are investing and we are making profits,” Padmanathan said. “We are not a charitable business.”
Wal van Lierop, president of Chrysalix Venture Capital, noted that his company had invested in a successful solar company with none other than Shell. “This is very, very profitable,” he said.