Smart Buildings

Why Big Oil is Investing in Clean Energy & Smart Buildings

The statistic that 40% of energy consumption comes from buildings is well-used when highlighting the much-needed work of energy optimization solutions. However, on the other side of that coin is the fact that buildings, especially inefficient buildings, are the energy industry’s biggest customer group. Consequently, the thought of “big oil” supporting the growing energy management industry, which strives to reduce energy consumption through better efficiency, is a little surprising. Recent investments from oil giant BP suggest that energy efficiency might have gained an unexpected supporter. In July 2018, BP’s venture capital branch BP Ventures invested £1.5 million in London-based electricity data intelligence company Voltware, which provides sensors and an AI-based electricity data intelligence platform specializing in energy disaggregation and energy-saving advice. Then, in October 2019, BP Ventures led a Series A funding round for Grid Edge, another developer of AI technology but one that focuses specifically on predicting, controlling and optimizing the energy profile of […]

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The statistic that 40% of energy consumption comes from buildings is well-used when highlighting the much-needed work of energy optimization solutions. However, on the other side of that coin is the fact that buildings, especially inefficient buildings, are the energy industry’s biggest customer group. Consequently, the thought of “big oil” supporting the growing energy management industry, which strives to reduce energy consumption through better efficiency, is a little surprising. Recent investments from oil giant BP suggest that energy efficiency might have gained an unexpected supporter.

In July 2018, BP’s venture capital branch BP Ventures invested £1.5 million in London-based electricity data intelligence company Voltware, which provides sensors and an AI-based electricity data intelligence platform specializing in energy disaggregation and energy-saving advice. Then, in October 2019, BP Ventures led a Series A funding round for Grid Edge, another developer of AI technology but one that focuses specifically on predicting, controlling and optimizing the energy profile of buildings.

“Digital technologies are a critical component to drive the transition to a low-carbon future. Using data, we can unlock the flexibility in-built in existing energy systems,” said BP Ventures managing director Nacho Gimenez. “This is the most efficient way to reduce the carbon intensity and power consumption required to keep buildings comfortable,” he continued, stating that the Grid Edge investment is in support of BP Alternative Energy’s wider strategy of low-carbon power, storage and digital energy.

Just last week, news emerged that BP Ventures had further bolstered its AI intentions with a £2.7 million ($3.6 million) investment into Chinese building energy management company R&B. R&B’s software as a service (SaaS) applies AI techniques to energy diagnostics and optimization in the commercial and industrial sector, processing data to generate insights and recommendations for improving energy efficiency and enhancing predictive maintenance in buildings. Complimenting another foray into China with a £10 million ($13 million) investment in PowerShare, one of China’s largest electric vehicle charging solutions providers.

“BP is determined to help meet society’s demands for more energy which is delivered in new and cleaner ways. Our investment in R&B, a business developing and deploying innovative technology to improve energy efficiency, is fully aligned with this strategy,” said Dev Sanyal, chief executive and executive vice president at BP Alternative Energy. Adding that digital technology alongside smarter consumers and “bold” decarbonization targets are “rapidly changing the world’s energy systems”.

So, based on these acquisitions and their associated statements, we may conclude that BP has seen the light at the end of the environmental tunnel and is using the money earned from its dirty fossil fuel business to drive a clean energy revolution to save the planet.

Bringing us back down to earth, however, is the indomitable fact that BP is pushing as strongly as ever to discover and exploit new and existing hydrocarbon resources. Clean energy investments, including those in buildings energy management and similar solutions, still make up a tiny fraction of BP’s overall investment portfolio, and it is the same for almost all the other oil majors, thereby undermining any ideas that these firms have true green motivations for these investments.

“The aims and the instruments of the new energy policies seem impressive and grandiose. However, are they really?” asks György Csomós of the University of Debrecen in a paper titled Relationship between large oil companies and the renewable energy sector: are what they say and what they do really different? “Can plans focusing on the promotion of renewable energy investments change the current dependence on fossil fuels? Can national governments achieve their renewable energy goals by themselves if the companies interested in exploitation of fossil fuels do not provide assistance?”

The attitude of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies towards the environment is relevant, not just in reducing the flow of dirty fuel into the global economy but in allowing governments to meet their critical environment targets at all. ExxonMobil, the largest Supermajor, echoes other oil firms in its The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040, which argues that “although the use of renewable energy will grow significantly in the next decades, oil will remain the leading global fuel, while natural gas will overtake coal for the second spot.” However, fighting tooth and nail to produce oil at the lowest possible price hardly aids the clean energy movement in changing this catastrophic reality.

The truth is that investments in clean energy from oil companies are often little more than public relations exercises in reaction to mounting pressure from our increasingly green society. BP’s recent investments in the building energy management space follows a rise in environmental criticism against them. Greenpeace protested the company at the Oil and Money conference on 8 October 2019 as well as blocking the entrances to BP’s London headquarters in May 2019. The environmental organization also criticized BP in March 2019 for lobbying against US methane regulations. Then, by the end of the year, the news focuses on BP’s green investments.

ExxonMobil, openly admits that it does not want to address “less profitable renewables,” while BP, in part because of external pressures, typically prefers to sell on its clean energy businesses. Shell and Chevron do own remarkable and diverse interests in the renewable energy business but for all of these firms, clean energy investment does not even represent 1-2% of their total investments. The only oil major that could reasonably be called a global renewable energy market player is France-based Total.

“Maybe Exxon got it right. Maybe it’s not the oil company’s job to do solar. If the day comes when the world doesn’t need more oil, it may be the oil company’s job to simply switch off the lights and return the money to its shareholders,” said one former Shell CEO, as highlighted in Damian Miller’s 2009 paper Why the oil companies lost solar. This raises other important questions like, “do we still need oil?” and “if we didn’t, would that stop oil companies competing for market share with green energy technologies?”

For building energy management and similar energy consumption reducing sectors, investment from big oil may be part of a public relations exercise but these investments are not being made without expectation of a return on investment. Grid Edge, R&B, and others can take pride in the funding they have raised as a reflection of their own success. However, they should be wary of their new investor’s interest in their long-term success as it lies in direct opposition to their own. If big oil really wanted to “go green,” they would start by reducing the extraction and production of highly-polluting fossil fuels but their money may still help kick start environmentally responsible solutions.

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