Big Oil Is Learning to Love Solar Power


(Image Credit: Chevron)

Chevron is currently claiming to be one of the largest solar installers for educational institutions in the U.S. -- an honorable statement, however difficult it may be to actually prove, especially for an oil company .

Cynicism aside, Chevron is behind one of the more intriguing solar projects I've come across lately. Project Brightfield is the company's conversion of an old refinery site into a solar power testing ground . Chevron is currently experimenting with a variety of solar panels on eight arrays spread across the facility.

Brightfield is a play on brownfield, the term used to describe former industrial sites, the refurbishment of which is usually complicated by the presence of contaminants. This is actually a brilliant repurposing, and it will be interesting to see if other energy companies follow suit, especially on the East Coast where numerous refineries have closed in recent years.

Other players
Of course, Chevron is not the only member of big oil to embrace solar power. Italy's Eni has had a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 2008, which resulted in the founding of the Solar Frontiers Center in 2010. The center promotes solar research ranging from materials development to hydrogen production .

And then you have France's Total , which owns a 66% stake in SunPower . SunPower has quickly grown into a force to be reckoned with in the solar industry, and a hard-to-ignore opportunity in the investing world. The company recently trounced its own second quarter earnings expectations on revenue, gross margin, adjusted EBITDA, and earnings per share. Total also owns 20% of the world's largest operating solar power plant, the Shams 1 facility in Abu Dhabi.

Despite this, solar remains an elective at most of these companies, Chevron included, and does not feature prominently on any big oil income statements. Total buries it in its marketing and services business segment under a tiny bullet labeled "New Energies". And why not? It's been a money-loser for the last two years, though the loss has narrowed considerably in 2013 .

In fact, some members of big oil have decided to bury solar altogether. At the very end of 2011, BP announced that after 40 years, it was dropping its solar initiative .

The obvious problem with big oil's participation in the solar industry is that they are not solar companies, they are oil companies. They know how to increase shareholder value with oil, so while companies like SolarCityare delighting investors with a 200% pop in share price year to date , it will be some time before big oil makes money the same way, if ever. Like SunPower, SolarCity is another pure-play solar investment that investors are giving a lot of consideration of late. In the second quarter of this year, megawatts deployed were up 144% year over year, and contracted payments rose 15% over the same period. These companies are proving it is possible to succeed in solar, which is likely why big oil is even bothering to participate.

Bottom line
The outcome of Chevron's solar initiative really remains to be seen at this point, and you can look at the company's leadership position in geothermal energy as proof. Chevron has one of the oldest geothermal operations, beginning in California in the 1960s, but despite fifty years in the game, geothermal operations do not make up a meaningful part of the company's revenue.

Only time will tell if the company's solar initiative follows a similar path. Nevertheless, the investments the company is making in both solar and energy efficiency are important, and should be followed closely. After all, past performance is no guarantee of future returns.

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Fool contributor Aimee Duffy has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Chevron and Total SA. (ADR). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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