Climate Change Drives Oil Dinosaur to Invest in a Friendlier Face
Posted May 14, 2018 10:32 p.m. EDT
COVENTRY, England — There seems to be little about the scrappy energy company in central England that would appeal to Royal Dutch Shell, the button-down oil giant.
The little company, First Utility, is an upstart challenger. It offers friendly customer service, and low prices on electricity and natural gas. But it does not own any power plants or gas pipelines; First Utility is a virtual energy company — the product of technological advancement and deregulation.
Its recent acquisition by Shell, a living dinosaur that continues to make its billions pumping fossil fuels out of the ground, illustrates one of the ways the energy companies that dominated the past are looking toward a future in which power is harnessed from the sun and the wind. It is a future that the petroleum industry is increasingly trying to embrace, leveraging its financial and logistical resources as it puzzles out ways to deal with the climate change problem its companies helped create.
Leading Shell’s efforts is Ben van Beurden. Since taking over as Shell’s chief executive in 2014, van Beurden has had to balance the company’s mainstay oil and gas business with the regulatory, shareholder and societal pressures — not to mention familial guilt — that will perhaps inevitably push Shell and its competitors to leave those businesses behind.
Van Beurden recently recalled how his 9-year-old daughter had once come home from school in tears. “She had heard that the Earth was warming up and being destroyed by people like Shell,” he said.
Investors are concerned, too. Van Beurden faced shareholder resolutions demanding that Shell take steps to mitigate climate change.
To insulate itself, Shell has begun allocating up to $2 billion per year — out of a capital budget of up to $30 billion — to electric power and other alternative energy. So far, it has bought First Utility and invested in operations as varied as a California solar energy business, an offshore wind farm in the Netherlands, a ride-sharing app startup in London and even a company that provides charging outlets for electric vehicles.
First Utility is the kind of business that could thrive. It couples low prices with a warm approach. Sales agents, who work online and by phone, are trained to try to help customers through problems like the loss of a family member, rather than following a script.
“We try to make sure we have a human conversation,” said Mandeep Deu, First Utility’s customer service manager.
That formula has won over some 850,000 customers in Britain’s bruising energy market and has impressed Shell, which had been supplying the company with power and natural gas. Shell closed a deal to buy First Utility in March after it decided that the company could be an important part of the future energy business it wants to build.
“They give us a platform to grow from,” said Maarten Wetselaar, who heads Shell’s new energies business and its natural gas unit, which means “we will be able to grow much faster than if we were to start” from scratch.
It is something of an evolution for Shell, which — along with other oil companies — has long argued that it was helping mitigate climate change by investing tens of billions of dollars in cleaner-burning natural gas. Shell even completed the purchase of BG, a British energy company, for $54 billion in 2016 to bolster its position as a leader in liquefied natural gas.
But the public was not persuaded, van Beurden said. “People did not trust us,” he said. They thought that “we were secretly advocating for the prolongation” of oil and gas.
If energy companies want to regain that trust and prevent public skepticism from leading to government mandates, van Beurden said, they have to change their tune. Last fall, at a country retreat near his home in the Netherlands, he worked out a new plan with his executive team. Shell, he said, will start reducing the carbon footprint not only of its operations but, more important, of its products like gasoline and jet fuel, in line with the Paris climate agreement. As part of those efforts, Shell said its goal was a 50 percent reduction in the carbon dioxide produced by those products by 2050.
Shell does not plan to stop selling oil and gas anytime soon. So to reach its goals, it needs ways of delivering cleaner energy products that will dilute the overall emissions from those fossil fuels. For a company as sprawling as Shell, which is Europe’s largest company, that can take many forms: having electric charging points and hydrogen, a clean fuel, available at its filling stations, and generating large amounts of green power from wind and solar installations to sell to industrial customers.
Still, some environmentalists and investors are skeptical about Shell’s intentions, noting that the $2 billion a year that it proposes to invest in new energies is still relatively small.
Mark van Baal, founder of Follow This, a Dutch shareholder activist group, said that accepting responsibility for the emissions of its products was “an industry-leading move” by Shell. But he added that the plan that van Beurden had outlined, which would allow oil and gas production to grow, was “not enough” given the dangers of global warming. For Shell’s annual meeting on May 22, Follow This has proposed a resolution asking the company to set specific targets for meeting the Paris goals on climate change. Aegon, a large Dutch insurer, and Actiam, a fund manager, have already said they would support the resolution. Last year, a similar Follow This proposal won a small but notable 6 percent of the vote.
On April 16, Shell directors advised shareholders to reject the proposal, saying that it might “tie the hands” of management to a rigid standard and that Shell’s efforts in the area were already “more progressive” than what Follow This was advocating.
Critics, though, continue to say Shell is overly wedded to fossil fuels.
“At the moment, the scale between their oil and gas business and their alternative energy business is still pretty disproportionate,” said Charlie Kronick, a senior adviser for Greenpeace in Britain. “You can’t really have it both ways.”
But change is afoot at Shell.
The company is placing bets on a number of new businesses and technologies. Last year, for example, it acquired NewMotion, a Dutch supplier of charging outlets for electric vehicles. In an interview, the company’s chief executive, Sytse Zuidema, said having Shell behind his firm, which has about 100 employees, would give it credibility with potential partners and customers like carmakers and corporate fleet owners.
“The ownership by Shell means we are taken seriously going forward,” he said. “Elephants like to dance with elephants.”
There is an important grain of truth to that idea, analysts said. While wind and solar are fast-growing sectors, the traditional powers in energy have the capital, scale and customers to rapidly ramp up development.
“There is no ideology here,” said Damien Sauer, a partner at Greentech Capital, which brokers clean energy deals. “I believe oil and gas companies have a role to play here because they can bring customer access and they can bring knowledge of how to develop very complex projects.” It is a change that is playing out across the once-staid power industry.
Other major European oil companies are also experimenting with renewable energy and electricity. BP recently said it would pay $200 million for a stake in a solar-power developer called Lightsource. Total, the French oil company, recently bought Direct Energie, a small power company with customers in France and Belgium, to add to a portfolio that includes a battery maker called Saft.
These companies are making moves because they realize that clean energy is likely to grow faster than their fossil fuel businesses. Shell wants to test whether its well-known brand and its experience operating projects at a large scale can bring substantial returns to what has been a low-profit business, but one with steady returns and a promising future.
“We are confident enough that we want to start putting real money at work here,” van Beurden said.