BP’s renewables plaything

Remember when BP renamed itself Beyond Petroleum? Remember when it said alternative energy was a core business? After deciding to quit wind (and solar), it appears those were the days of greenwashing.

Overnight, BP announced it will abandon its wind farm business in the US. The oil and gas giant, its reputation still tarnished by the Gulf oil spill of a couple of years ago, will use the sale of the division to help pay off some of its spill liabilities.

In other words, it’s a clean energy sell-off to pay for the sins of its dirty energy division. Oh, the irony.

Reuters suggested the sale of the division could reap around $1.5 billion, while Bloomberg provided a more optimistic number of $2.2-$3.1 billion.

As the rumoured sale price suggests, BP is far from a bit player in US wind, with 16 wind farms and a generating capacity of around 2,600 MW. It took five years for the company to go from 0 turbines in the US to 1,000 (and, incidentally, probably just a couple of months to go back to 0).

It marks another sign in the transformation of a business that has moved from British Petroleum (the original name) to Beyond Petroleum (a monicker it gave itself in a long running marketing campaign) to Back to Petroleum.

While the Beyond Petroleum ads suggested otherwise, BP never fully committed itself to renewables, ploughing enough money in to look like it was a progressive company while not ploughing enough in to make a real fist of it.

It exited solar at the end of 2011 after being the market leader around the turn of the century. Now, with the exit from wind power (and previous move away from carbon capture and storage), BP’s alternative energy division now consists of just biofuels research and ethanol refining in Brazil.

Indeed, the funds it spent marketing itself as a company looking beyond fossil fuels mightn’t be that far off how much it has actually spent on wind and solar.

A Reuters article from April 2010 highlights the stunning speed of the about face for the company:

London-based BP is principally involved in four types of alternative technologies: wind power, solar power, carbon capture and storage and biofuels.

"We're absolutely holding these as core businesses," said (BP Alternative Energy chief executive Katrina) Landis. "All four of those technology areas have the opportunity to be very sizable."

BP has since chucked three of these four technologies from "core" to scrapheap in just three years.

BP's renewables departure, however, is understandable given the solar sector’s troubles (supply glut) and the company’s need to pay off the debts of its past (hence the wind sale). But put simply, it’s easy to see why many were cynical of the Beyond Petroleum campaign – and why the question must be raised: was it the greatest greenwashing exercise of all time? 

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