Big Oil Backing Green Energy Startup Firms

Major oil companies are joining Silicon Valley in backing energy-technology startups, a signal that that those with the deepest pockets in the industry are casting around for a new strategy.

From Royal Dutch Shell to Total and Exxon Mobil Corp., the biggest investor-owned oil companies are dribbling money into ventures probing the edge of energy technologies. The investments go beyond wind and solar power into projects that improve electricity grids and brew new fuels from renewable resources, Bloomberg reported.

While the money involved is small—a fraction of the $7.5 billion that venture capital and private equity injected into the clean energy industry last year—the funds support work that may evolve into major income streams in the decades ahead as governments work to limit fossil-fuel pollution and global warming.

Shell Technology Ventures, a unit of Royal Dutch Shell Plc, has put money into Kite Power Systems, a maker of a kite that flies on wind currents to generate renewable electricity, and Sense, a startup that creates devices that monitor home power consumption.

A unit of the French oil major Total SA is bankrolling exciting startups, including AutoGrid, a California-based company that designs smart-grid software, and United Wind, a company that leases wind turbines to retail customers and small businesses.

BP Plc’s VC fund has invested $325 million to date. It tends to skew more toward chemicals or fuels, rather than renewable electricity.

Exxon Mobil prefers to conduct research internally and with partners rather than buy minority stakes in startups. It is studying biofuels, carbon capture and storage, energy-efficiency processes and energy-saving materials.

Chevron has been investing in startups since 1999 and divides its portfolio between oil and gas, advanced materials, communications infrastructure, information technologies and emerging and alternative energy.

The unit of Norway’s state oil company, Statoil, has invested in ChargePoint Inc., an electric-vehicle charging point operator based in California, and Oxford Photovoltaics Ltd., a solar technology company.

Big Oil’s push into venture capital adds to the sense that technology is moving rapidly in the energy industry, leaving a question mark over what will dominate energy supply for the first time in almost a century.

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