Big oil sees value of clean energy

With a few exceptions -- the conversion of Dong Energy (Danish oil and natural gas) to offshore-wind developer Ørsted being the prime example -- oil and gas majors for the most part have been keener on defending their patch than diversifying into renewables.

The steps they are taking on the path to the energy transition are baby-sized, and likely to remain so until political aspiration is transformed into action, particularly on carbon pricing.

Slowly, but surely though, the (tar) sands are shifting. When the manager of the world's largest sovereign wealth fund, a $1-trillion portfolio of assets built on the back of returns from oil and gas exploration and extraction, recommends getting out of the sector, you can feel the ground moving.

The Norwegian central bank's advice to its government — that it should rule out future investment in fossil fuels, and divest those thermal assets it currently owns — is the result of hard-headed financial analysis rather than consideration for the environment. Returns on oil and gas stocks have been lower than the broad equity market for several years, and while the crude oil price has recovered somewhat from its $30 low of two years ago, its future value remains dependent on the major producers limiting production.

However, advice is one thing, action is another. Norway's government has yet to respond to the bank's counsel, and the country continues to explore for oil in Arctic waters, despite opposition and legal action from environmental organisations.

Financiers may be having their doubts over the long-term future of oil (less so, gas). Politicians are proving harder to shift from their fossil-fuel dependence.

Cleaning up transport

The pace of technology progress in electrification, particularly transport, is beginning to mirror that of wind and solar. In late November, Elon Musk unveiled the Tesla Semi, an electric-powered truck tractor unit that, he claims, can haul a 36-tonne trailer for 800km on a single charge.

Musk declined to give a purchase price for the vehicle, but argued that it would be cheaper to run than a diesel truck, assuming a source of wholesale electricity at $70/MWh (€59.5/MWh).

More importantly, that electricity has to be generated from non-carbon sources if vehicles like the Tesla Semi are to make their full contribution towards a cleaner environment. Onshore wind can meet that price in many parts of the world already. Offshore wind is on the way there, too.