Oil giant BP has invested $200 million to acquire partial ownership of a solar power developer. BP’s investment in Britain-based Lightsource is a return to form for a company that once prided itself on progressive commitments to clean energy. Prior to the devastating 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the company had invested billions in renewable energy, spoke openly and frequently about the dangers of climate change, and even went so far as to rebrand as “Beyond Petroleum.” After a lull in clean energy action, BP is once again responding to pressure from investors and governments, particularly in Europe, to make the switch from fossil fuels.
BP and other oil giants are expanding their renewable energy portfolios not simply because it is good publicity and politics, but also because it is profitable. “The European majors feel under pressure to diversify, to get exposure to different technologies so they are not left out,” said Valentina Kretzschmar, an analyst at energy consultants Wood Mackenzie, according to the New York Times. “It is what a lot of their peer group is doing.” Wood Mackenzie estimates that capital investments in renewable energy offer returns between seven and 10 percent.
Under political and financial pressure in the wake of the 2010 oil spill, for which BP has paid $64 billion in damages and fines, BP has primarily focused on reinforcing its oil and gas operations in recent years. Despite returning to its earlier focus on renewable energy, it has learned from its mistakes. Previously, the company had invested in solar panel production, which has since been overpowered by countries like China. Its move to acquire partial ownership of Lightsource demonstrates BP’s embrace of a different kind of company, one that focuses on the installation and operation of solar systems rather than their production. “They need a renewable business to develop over time as part of energy transiting, but were lacking the ability to make solar profitable,” said Oswald Clint, an analyst at Bernstein Research, according to the New York Times. “Lightsource might be the solution.”