Rhein on Energy and Climate

The third biggest European oil and gas company, TOTAL, has decided to buy a majority stake in Sun Power, the second US manufacturer of solar panels. This follows earlier engagements in solar ventures, including research, but it is the biggest investment so far ($ 1.4 billion).

The acquisition reflects rising tensions in the energy markets and the concerns of the oil and gas majors about long-term energy supplies. TOTAL had for many years toyed with the idea of entering nuclear energy as an alternative to fossils; but the Fukushima meltdown and the difficulties of getting a firm footing in the very competitive nuclear business may finally have tipped the balance towards solar technologies and biofuels as a long-term alternative to oil and and gas.

So far the risks taken are minute. The amount of the investments is tiny, just a quarter of what TOTAL has recently paid for a Russian gas company and one tenth of its annual investments in oil and gas.

The purchase has given a boost to the solar PV industry and is likely to strengthen the confidence of American and European companies in their fight against Chinese, government-backed competitors. After all, one of the big operators in oil and gas acknowledges that solar power may have a future and offer opportunities for making money. This should be seen as a important message of TOTAL `s acquisition.

It comes at a moment when major European energy companies like Royal Dutch, Gaz de France, Statoil and Suez aim at putting their bets into shale gas rather than renewables. During the last weeks they have vigorously campaigned for shale gas as the cheapest solution for the EU to reach its 2050.emission targets.

The EU must not listen to these sirens and continue to fix ambitious targets for the share of wind, solar and biomass in power generation and aggregate energy demand. In addition, it should put a ban on shale gas drilling because of its potential damage for ground water sources and high environmental costs.

The path TOTAL has chosen is in any event preferable to the strategy the “European Gas Advocacy” Forum is promoting. Gas cannot be the long-term solution for the world` s energy and climate challenges.

Author :