BP Breaks Up With Solar Energy: It’s Not You, It’s Us

Solar is booming across the country, but not for the big oil behemoth.


Helios House, BP's 'Green' gas station in Los Angeles, Californi has solar panels, low energy lighting, concrete mixed with recycled glass, and a rain collection system to irrigate plants nearby. (Photo: Universal Images Group / Getty Images)


Mar 8, 2013· 2 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

BP gave “Beyond Petroleum” a try, but it didn’t quite work out. The oil giant has officially ditched solar energy.

BP CEO Bob Dudley made it plain and simple: “Not that solar energy isn’t a viable energy source, but we worked at it for 35 years, and we really never made money,” he said this week at an energy conference.

"They have no good reason to do really well in solar energy, because if they did well they would put themselves out of business."

The company announced last year that it would begin winding down its solar operations, but stressed that wind and biofuels would remain part of BP’s portfolio. The announcement has caused some snickering; after all, BP redesigned its logo to look like a sun, and has defended its “Beyond Petroleum” brand.

But solar experts are not exactly surprised by BP’s announcement.

“I have always been extremely skeptical of oil companies in the solar business,” Dr. Roland Winston, professor of engineering at the University of California Merced, and director of UC Solar, told TakePart. “They have no good reason to do really well in solar energy, because if they did well they would put themselves out of business.”

BP recently agreed to pay a record 4 billion in criminal fines for the company’s role in the 2010 Gulf oil disaster. As part of the plea deal, BP also admitted to willfully violating the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and lying to Congress about the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf from its offshore oilrig.

While BP is desperately holding onto its oily past, solar is the fastest growing new energy source in the U.S. Not only is it better for the environment than the alternatives, many companies are being drawn to the financial promise of harnessing the sun. Google Inc, Warren Buffet, and Total, Europe’s third largest oil company began investing in solar in 2011, according to Bloomberg News.

The U.S. now has enough solar installations to power more than one million American homes, and lower costs mean that solar panels are increasingly affordable.

“The price of solar panels has easily dropped 50 percent in the last 3 years,” said David Denny, solar energy consultant at Joule Energy. “On the homeowner side, it’s much better because $25,000 buys you a lot more panels than it did a few years ago.”

Federal and state tax incentives have made solar energy more accessible than ever. Joule Energy, a leader in alternative energy in the Southeast, has installed more than 20 million in solar panel systems in southern Louisiana, and the panels adorning rooftops in the south are not necessarily owned by bleeding hearts or environmentalists.

“There’s more bipartisan support for solar in the real world than there may appear to be in Washington,” Denny said. “A lot of our customers are hard core Republicans who want tax credits and energy freedom. Our clients are also Democrats who want to go green and reduce their carbon footprint.”

In California, some officials are working to make solar an everyday reality.

Mayor R. Rex Parris of sunny Lancaster, California, has proposed a zoning change whereby any single-family home built after January 1, 2014 must include a solar energy system. Parris, a Republican, said he knew his plan would be met with fierce resistance from developers. “I understand the building industry is not happy with this. We will just have to take the heat,” he said at a recent energy summit, according to Mother Nature Network.

On the state level, California has mandated that 33 percent of the state’s electricity be renewable by the end of the decade. There are currently 227 solar projects in California, with many more applications pending.

Solar energy development is not without challenges. Solar projects are eating up productive farmland in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and the creation of solar panels produces hazardous waste that must be transported to approved sites, a process often ignored in the calculation of solar’s carbon footprint. Better technologies are needed to store electricity generated by the sun.

But these are the kinds of problems that we can solve—particularly if we are going to move to an energy source that is orders of magnitude cleaner than our current forms.

“I would de-emphasize everything we do with oil and coal,” Winston said. “Those are the energy sources of the past. We shouldn’t be subsidizing them. They are not the future.”