Shell is buying clean-tech companies. What’s going on?

Source: David Ferris, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Royal Dutch Shell PLC, one of the world’s largest oil companies, gave fresh signals last week that it intends to be a purveyor of low-carbon electricity. It bought a battery company that will compete with Tesla Inc. and struck a partnership with Google to test an exotic wind generator.

The news came shortly after Shell acquired Greenlots, a California startup that builds software to network fueling stations for electric vehicles (Energywire, Feb. 1, 2019).

Together, the moves place Shell in the clique of petroleum companies that are putting serious money into low-carbon electricity, even if they are small investments by the standards of a global oil giant.

Others include Total SA, the French oil refiner, which owns solar manufacturer SunPower; Equinor ASA, the Norwegian oil company that is going big into offshore wind; and BP PLC, which is installing electric-vehicle charging stations at its gas stations in Britain.

On Friday, Shell announced its New Energies division would buy Sonnen GmbH, a German company that makes batteries that are installed in homes. The two firms are well-acquainted. Last year, Shell led a $71 million investment round in Sonnen.

In a sign of its intentions, the British-Dutch oil major pointed out that it will work with Sonnen to charge electric vehicles and to aggregate its batteries to interact with the larger electric grid.

“The agreement will accelerate the ability of the two companies to offer innovative integrated energy services and electric vehicle charging solutions, and the provision of grid services that are based on sonnen’s virtual battery pool,” Shell said in a statement.

Sonnen has installed its batteries in thousands of homes in Europe. As it expands, it will likely be fighting for business with Tesla, whose Powerwall is the most well-known home battery in the United States.

“Our intention is to position the product so customers love it and buy it a lot. Whether it’s No. 1 or No. 2, that’s a matter for the market to decide,” said Brian Davis, Shell’s vice president of energy solutions, according to Greentech Media.

A ‘moonshot’ wind technology

The other development of last week has less impact on Shell’s bottom line but suggested where it may be headed in offshore energy.

Last Tuesday, an energy project little known outside Silicon Valley announced a partnership with Shell to deploy a robotic kitelike device in the deep ocean off Norway.

The device is a wind generator developed by a startup called Makani. Essentially, it is a wing with propeller blades that generates electricity as it circles in the air in the presence of strong winds. It is attached to the ground by a tether that doubles as an electric cable.

“Adapting Makani’s energy kite technology to offshore environments is an exciting technical challenge, and we’ll be drawing on Shell’s extensive engineering and operational expertise with floating structures to make this transition,” wrote Fort Felker, Makani’s CEO, in a blog post. “We plan to kick off testing of this new floating offshore system with demonstrations in Norway later this year, and we’re developing additional partnerships to help us bring Makani’s commercial system to life.”

Makani proposes that embodying a wind generator in the form of a kite, rather than a tower, saves on materials and construction costs. It is also more light and portable, and could be deployed in the deep ocean via a tether anchored on the seafloor.

Shell, when asked to comment on its relationship with Makani, sent a link to Makani’s blog post.

Makani, founded in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, has an odd corporate parentage. It was founded as a startup in 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Area and in 2013 was absorbed by Google to be part of its “moonshot” lab of difficult but promising technologies. It also received funding from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Makani’s current prototype generates 600 kilowatts of electricity and is being tested in Hawaii.

The same day Makani unveiled its partnership with Shell, it announced its separation from Google X into an independent company. It is the latest of Google X’s energy-related projects that have recently spun off.

One is Malta, a startup that stores electricity via molten salts. Another is Dandelion, which built a system to heat and cool homes with tubes dug deep into the ground. And the best-known spinoff of all is Waymo, Google’s robotic car technology, which is duking it out with the likes of GM and Uber to deploy electric, automated cars.