There’s a popular meme that surfaces on green energy blogs, forums, and Facebook pages. The gist is that large corporations love oil and gas because they can own and control it. They’re against renewable energy because no-one can own the sun or wind.
The problem for anti-corporate green-energy campaigners is, increasingly: the meme isn’t true.
As the materials for producing wind and solar energy become cheaper, tax breaks and incentives for renewable energy increase, and the prospect of finding more oil and gas becomes weaker, corporations are entering the green energy landscape to the tune of billions of dollars.
Last month, NRG, one of the US’s largest energy companies with 100 power plants across the country, including plants that run on coal and natural gas, finalized details in its bid to buy Alta Wind Energy Center in California, the largest wind farm in North America, for $800m.
It was the latest blockbuster renewable energy deal by a large corporation in recent years.
There’s the under-construction 560 megawatt Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in California, which is owned jointly by NextEra Energy – an energy conglomerate that makes about $15bn a year mostly from gas and nuclear plants, GE, and Sumitomo – a Japanese company that gets most of its billions from mining, oil and gas production. And there’s the 550 megawatt Topaz Solar Farm, owned by MidAmerican, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s multi-billion dollar empire which is also heavily invested in coal and oil.
Even Google, Microsoft and Apple are getting into the game. All three companies announced plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into wind and solar this year.
“There’s a battle going on – and it’s not a very public battle – over who owns green energy and who benefits from it,” said Anya Schoolman, the executive director of the Community Power Network, a non-profit which helps fund and build local power networks.
To some, the investment is a double-edged sword. Environmentalists fear that green energy may now be going the same way as organic food – becoming an industry that uses the language and imagery of a social movement to sell products that benefit multi-billion dollar corporations, and not necessarily the communities they serve.
“People used to think renewables wouldn’t only bring energy into the 21st century, but would also bring the economy and democracy into the 21st century,” said Anthony Giancatarino, a program manager for energy projects at the Center for Social Inclusion, a nonprofit that lobbies against inequality, among other things. “I don’t think the industry has been totally co-opted yet, but we’re seeing seeds of that happening.”
Companies invested $214bn in green energy globally last year, according to a report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the United Nations Environment Program. That’s 14% less than was invested in 2012, but analysts believe that has more to do with falling costs of renewable energy generation than with a lack of interest in the industry. Tellingly, clean energy share prices were up 54% last year, and while investments in small, private energy firms tumbled by 46%, public renewable energy companies (ie big companies), saw their equity double to $11bn in just one year.
That shows investors are more sure of seeing profitable returns from large-scale energy investment than from small start-up energy projects, according to the report.
The benefits and drawbacks of such behemoths entering an arena once dominated by small companies and nonprofits are still being evaluated.
‘Corporate support is a welcome change’
For some, the dream of green energy was not as much about lowering CO2 as it was giving communities a voice in their energy needs. In low-income, predominantly minority areas that are often most affected by the inherent issues that come with living next to a fossil fuel plant, wind and solar was seen as an alternative to the pollution-causing energy solutions of large corporations.
In Richmond, California, for example, residents and activists are petitioning the city to buy power from solar energy sources, and are installing panels on low-income homeowners’ rooftops. The point for campaigners there is not only to increase green energy use, but to decrease the city’s economic reliance on a notorious Chevron oil refinery that caught fire in 2012, sending 15,000 people to the hospital for respiratory problems.
But the refinery is still going strong, and Chevron is becoming one of the leading developers of solar power in California.
“If the city decides to install more solar, there’s nothing stopping Chevron from being the one to do it,” said Giancatarino.
Beyond the irony of the same companies that environmental activists have fought against profiting from renewables, there are more direct impacts from big companies entering the green energy market.
Some say large companies have an advantage when it comes to getting through complex permitting processes and winning grants and state incentives which often require filling out mountains of paperwork.
“These large companies are coming in and competing for the same state and local incentives that we are,” Schoolman said. “You’ll see it all the time. Often there’s no more money for projects because a few plants came in and sucked up all the incentives.”
And in some cases, big energy companies are actively trying to quash the kind of community-based energy production that many green activists favor. Arizona’s largest electric company APS is investing heavily in renewable energy, but it’s also lobbying heavily to make installing solar panels on rooftops less affordable.
But for some green energy advocates, corporate support of green energy is a welcome change.
“Given our economic system we need to figure out a way for companies to make money on things like renewable energy, so they actually do it,” said Cara Pike, the executive director of green energy think tank Climate Access.
Pike points to Walmart’s recent launch of an organic food line as proof that large corporations and community-focused solutions to environmental problems can coexist, and perhaps even help open up a once-small movement to people who would otherwise remain uninvolved.
“Just because big companies went organic doesn’t mean that there aren’t farmers markets,” she said. “We need everyone getting into renewable energy right now, including the mainstream companies making it more accessible to the people who were never going to be part of the movement in the first place.”