The World's Greenest Oil Company?

France's Total is hedging against a low-carbon future by investing in solar and biofuels. 
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A SunPower/Total photovoltaic power plant in Kern County, California (AP)

When Total, the French oil and petrochemicals conglomerate, announced a joint venture yesterday with California biofuels company Amyris to produce low-carbon jet fuel and diesel, it was just the latest move into renewable energy by the fossil-fuel giant.

During the height of the green-tech investing boom before the 2008 global economic crash, oil companies from BP to ExxonMobil poured hundreds of millions of dollars into solar and biofuels. That served as both a hedge against a low-carbon future, and, not coincidentally, as a way to generate some green goodwill. It’s not a new phenomenon. Oil company Atlantic Richfield, for instance, bought an early solar panel maker back in 1977.

But that enthusiasm has waned in recent years. Oil companies as well as venture capitalists pruned their green-tech portfolios amid the worldwide downturn and the belated realization that some renewable energy technologies were not ready for prime time, while others would require billions of dollars to commercialize. BP—which had rebranded itself as “Beyond Petroleum”—shuttered its solar operations in 2011. ExxonMobil earlier this year said it’s re-evaluating its investment in algae biofuels after putting $100 million into a company called Synthetic Genomics.

Total, however, has accelerated its investment in renewable energy. As BP was shutting down its solar business in 2011, Total bought 60 percent of SunPower, the Silicon Valley photovoltaic panel manufacturer and power plant developer, for $1.4 billion. “We see [solar] as a huge potential in the very long-term future,” Total executive Philippe Boisseau told me when the deal was announced. “As we look 20 years down the road, it can represent a significant part of the electricity mix and therefore the energy mix.”

The company has invested in biomass startups and Total also bought 18 percent of Amyris. The San Francisco Bay Area company makes genetically engineered yeast that ingests sugarcane and excretes a renewable version of farnesene, an industrial hydrocarbon that can be refined into biodiesel and low-carbon jet fuel.

In the joint venture announced yesterday, Amyris and Total will form a company in Brazil called Total Amyris BioSolutions to make renewable jet fuel. With the European Union and Australia imposing carbon taxes on aviation emissions, the demand for green jet fuel is expected to skyrocket and all the major airlines have flown test fights powered by everything from used cooking oil to algae.

“As far as commercialization is concerned, the new joint-venture will benefit from the know-how and customer access of Total, which operates in more than 130 countries and is aiming to become a key supplier in renewable fuels," Boisseau said in a statement. 

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Todd Woody is an environmental and technology journalist based in California. He has written for The New York Times and Quartz, and was previously an editor and writer at FortuneForbes, and Business 2.0.

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