Chevron Bearish on Cleantech Investing


By Ucilia Wang, GigaOM

A lot of the big oil companies have been making smallinvestments in clean power and cleantech, particularly biofuels,and Chevron’s investment arm, Chevron Technology Ventures,was no exception. But Chevron’s venture group has actuallybeen moving away from making ANY cleantech investments, andhasn’t invested in a cleantech startup in two years,according to its president, Des King.

“What we are seeing is less cleantech opportunitiesoffered for consideration. It wasn’t as vibrant as it was afew years ago,” King said during an interview on Thursday atthe California Cleantech Open, a business competition forstartups.

Chevron Technology has invested nearly $200 million in 60companies across sectors over time, with 36 of them in its currentportfolio, King said.

There are more than a few reasons for the shift away fromcleantech. One of them is the rise of natural gas, which is cheapand abundant now that new technology have been developed to extractgas from shale and new resources have been found over the past fewyears in the U.S. Chevron says it has been seeing new startupcompanies in the natural gas technology space.

At the same time, clean power – from solar to biofuels– remains uncompetitive and unprofitable, King said. Chevronis interested in solar, but is also seeing less need to make equityinvestments in solar technology because the tech is maturing andcommoditizing. With solar panel prices coming down, Chevron isinterested in deploying solar technologies rather than nurturingnew startups.

Chevron’s solar projects

Chevron has been running technology demonstrations for avariety of solar technologies, including solar photovoltaic (solarpanels), concentrating photovoltaic (using mirrors to focus lightonto solar cells), and concentrating solar thermal technologies (acombo of concentrating mirrors and using the sun’s heat toproduce steam, and then electricity).

Chevronunveiled its 740 KW Project Brightfield in early 2010 to testthin film solar photovoltaic technologies from seven companies:Sharp, Abound Solar, MiaSole, Schuco, Solar Frontier, Solibro andInnovalight. Innovalight, unlike the others, makes silicon ink toapply to solar cells to boost the sunlight-to-electricityconversion (the company has since been bought by DuPont).

“Some worked very well, and some we found didn’tstand up to the real environment. They cracked,” said King,who declined to name the manufacturers who produced the faultypanels. Solar panels are supposed to last 20-25 years.

Chevron has no plan to stop running Project Brightfield, whichis located in Bakersfield, Calif. It’s looking at buildingsolar power projects but will likely do so overseas where energyprices are high, King said, and he named Indonesia and Hawaii asexamples. The company doesn’t want to build solar farms tosell them or operate them while selling electricity to localutilities. Instead, it wants to build them for its own use, Kingsaid.

That philosophy is evident in the unveiling of a 29MW project by BrightSource Energy near a Chevron oil field incentral California earlier this week. BrightSource, which countsChevron as an equity investor, built the solar thermal farm toproduce steam, which is then shipped to the oil field to loosen upthe sticky oil and make it easy to extract.

Chevron also is running a demonstration project forconcentrating photovoltaic technology in New Mexico. The company builta 1 MW project earlier this year near its molybdenum mine inQuesta, New Mexico, using technology from Soitec’s Concentrixdivision.

Images are of Chevron’s solar to steam farm in Coalinga, and of MiaSole’s factory.

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