On the other hand, Big Oil went in on the infrastructure to start with

This is not to suggest that I’m happy with Shell and BP abandoning their renewable energy projects: I just acknowledge that, perhaps, those projects would not have existed, had the likes of Shell and BP not started them up in the first place.

Shell, the oil company that recently trumpeted its commitment to a low carbon future by signing a pre-Bali conference communique, has quietly sold off most of its solar business.

The move, taken with rival BP’s decision last week to invest in the world’s dirtiest oil production in Canada’s tar sands, indicates that Big Oil might be giving up its flirtation with renewables and going back to its roots.

… at a time when interest in solar power is greater than ever, with the world’s first “solar city” being built at Phoenix, Arizona, a small announcement from Environ Energy Global of Singapore revealed that it had bought Shell’s photovoltaic operations in India and Sri Lanka, with more than 260 staff and 28 offices, for an undisclosed sum.

The sell-off, to be followed by similar ones in the Philippines and Indonesia, comes after another major disposal executed in a low-key way last year, when Shell hived off its solar module production business. The division, with 600 staff and manufacturing plants in the US, Canada and Germany, went to Munich-based SolarWorld. Shell has however formed a manufacturing link, with Saint-Gobain, and promised to build one plant in Germany.

The Anglo-Dutch oil group confirmed yesterday that it had pulled out of its rural business in India and Sri Lanka, saying it was not making enough money.

We should also bear in mind that this is photovoltaic energy: hardly the most lucrative or cost-effective of the Renewables – some of which are being retained:

The oil group said it was continuing to move its renewables interests into a mainstream business and hoped to find one new power source that would “achieve materiality” for it. Shell continues to invest in a number of wind farm schemes, such as the London Array offshore scheme, which has government approval. Shell has also been concentrating its efforts on biofuels, but declined to say whether it had given up on solar power even though many smaller rivals continue to believe the technology has a bright future.

There follows a standard form of critique (this was a quote: this is not from the writer of the article):

“… the oil majors, including Shell, had invested time and energy in promoting their plans for renewable energy in the press and on TV, but were not able to lead the transformation the world needs towards renewable energy and energy efficient solutions.”

Who ever said that they should? They’re corporations, not saints. Big, nasty, smelly, evil corporations, sure. They operate according to the profit motive; according to Cost-Benefit Analyses and analysis of what a market will bear. Would we rather they pour more energy into bringing this initiatives in the proper mainstream of base load? Sure – but that doesn’t mean that they should. Why should they?

When we all stop wearing cotton and eating things built almost entirely from corn and soy, we can start moving on the moral high ground.

Until then, we need to accept that markets are made up of free agents. If we want to get upset, we should be upset about such companies receiving sweetheart deals on access to public land. We should be upset that so much Farm Aid goes to corporate addresses in Manhattan, yet almost no real subsidisation of renewable energy exists. Agents in an economy will only do what their incentives tell them to do: corporate incentives are bundled up in the next AGM. Anyone who wants to make a difference should push SRI and investor activism; run for state legislatures on clearly-defined platforms of public investment in renewable energy and protection of the common treasury.

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