In the past, such swings have been written off by environmental campaigners as greenwash, and just as likely to be reversed once low oil prices go up again.
But analysts say that, even though only a tiny percent of oil majors’ investment goes into renewables, the interest this time seems to be sustained, and underpinned by solid profit.
“It is not a purely economic trend” driven by low crude prices, said Francis Perrin, president of SPE, which publishes a number of energy-related publications.
“It’s more profound: it’s the adaption of certain oil industry majors to a certain number of energy and economic upheavals.”
Perrin suggested oil companies were more cognisant of the threat posed by climate change and the potential that renewable energy will become big business.
Already present in the manufacturing of solar panels via its unit Sunpower, France’s Total earlier this year invested in a US company that installs mini wind turbines for homes and businesses.
Italy’s ENI plans to invest 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) over the next three years in solar projects, while Shell, BP and Statoil are concentrating on wind power.
In the US, Chevron is switching its bets from geothermal to biofuels, although ExxonMobil remains lagging in the green energy field.
Profitable = sustainable
With the price of crude in the doldrums, “the priority for oil companies is creating value” said Jerome Sabathier, head of the economics department at IFPEN, a French government body that supports research into the renewable energies, the environment and transportation.
Most oil companies are trying to cut costs and reduce their debts, selling off non-strategic assets.
Interestingly, though, they have been loath to sell off renewables, which have been a source of growth.
Perrin said the interest isn’t only due to low crude prices, however.
“The trend started before oil prices began to tumble in the summer of 2014 and will continue if they rebound,” he said.
While oil companies have been slashing investment as they seek to cut costs, the chief executive of Total, Patrick Pouyanne, noted the company has continued to allocated $500 million per year on renewable energies.
And often their efforts are supported by public funds.
“There are a certain number of financing mechanisms and subsidies for renewable energy that create a real financial interest for companies,” said IFPEN’s Sabathier.
But Total’s CEO said that the key to sustainability is profit.
“You will not build sustainable business just because its green, you will build it because it will be profitable and because ecology meets economy,” said Pouyanne at a recent conference.
Even if they are not initially profitable, renewable investments also provide an enormous public relations benefit to oil companies.
“It’s the cherry on the cake,” said Perrin.