Royal Dutch Shell moved last week to shore up its position in the transition off carbon by buying German energy storage start-up Sonnen GmbH, while simultaneously facing legal jeopardy for its past and present behaviour as one of the world’s biggest fossils.
With last week’s announcement of the Sonnen acquisition, Shell is “staking a claim on the home energy storage market and further expanding its ever-increasing footprint in the clean energy industry,” Greentech Media reports. But on a parallel track, seven environmental and human rights organizations in The Netherlands threatened to sue the Dutch-British oil giant unless it aligns its business model with the targets in the 2015 Paris Agreement, Climate Liability News notes. And the company is being hauled into court in The Hague for its alleged complicity in the murders of nine anti-oil activists in Nigeria two decades ago, according to iPolitics.
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Greentech traces Shell’s relationship with Sonnen back to May 2018, when it emerged as the lead investor in a US$71-million round of financing. Now, the full acquisition “escalates Shell’s involvement in futuristic grid start-ups. In just the last month, the company invested in a novel wind power venture called Makani and acquired Greenlots, a major U.S. electric vehicle charging company.”
For Sonnen, “it would be hard to overstate the opportunities that arise from teaming up with a global energy giant,” Greentech adds. “Shell manages a full stack of energy services, including generation, trading, and customer relationships. It could integrate energy storage with a number of other services,” and “the backing of Shell could propel Sonnen to new scale and customer awareness as it competes with Tesla’s Powerwall and LG Chem’s Resu for customers that want to control their home energy.”
“They’ve got a really very good product and a great customer-centric innovation strategy,” said Brian Davis, Shell’s vice president of energy solutions. “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.”
Greentech’s Julian Spector goes into detail on the attributes of Sonnen’s battery system and the home storage market the company has been working to tap in Europe, the United States, and Australia. “Taken as a whole, Shell New Energies’ spectrum of services overlaps considerably with what a traditional electric utility would do, besides maintaining the poles and wires,” Spector writes. “So far, that utility includes clean energy, electric vehicles, and distributed energy storage, and there’s no reason to expect the drumbeat of investment will stop there.”
But Shell has also faced ridicule for the “circular logic” in energy futures scenarios that appeared to reflect a misunderstanding of the Paris targets, along with speculation last year that its idea of a “low-carbon” future is to extract all its fossil reserves before they become stranded assets. Last year, as well, Dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers uncovered a trove of documents showing the company understood the urgency of climate change as far back as 1988 and knew that its own products were contributing to the problem.
Now, the seven Netherlands organizations “have gathered more than 13,000 signatures from Dutch citizens backing the forthcoming lawsuit,” Climate Liability News states. “If Shell fails to meet their demands, they plan to deliver a court summons to the company at its headquarters in The Hague on April 5. This would be a new legal approach in battling climate change, the first lawsuit to directly challenge the business model and growth strategy of an oil company.”
Shell is responding that the courts should not dictate energy policy.
“We strongly support the Paris Agreement and the need for society to transition to a lower-carbon future,” a company spokesperson said. “We’re committed to playing our part and have set an ambition to reduce Shell’s net carbon footprint, including emissions from both our own operations and from our customers’ use of our energy products. To demonstrate progress, we will set short-term targets for reducing emissions, linked to executive remuneration.”
But the seven environment and human rights groups cite Shell as one of the 100 fossils responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, producing “twice as much carbon pollution as the rest of the Netherlands combined,” Climate Liability News notes. And they’ve called in some high-powered support to win the case.
“An attorney for the organization, Roger Cox, led the successful landmark Urgenda lawsuit against the Dutch government, which convinced a court to compel it to cut emissions by at least 25% by 2020,” CLN notes. “That historic decision marked the first time a court has ordered a country to take more aggressive action on climate change, and it has inspired a wave of climate litigation in other countries.”
And the company’s legal troubles aren’t ending there. It’s been 24 years since the Nigerian government executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, who were protesting the impact of Shell’s oil and gas activities in their region and asking for a fair share of the proceeds. His widow, Esther Kiobel, “has been pursuing a civil case against the oil giant since then, and brought the case to the Netherlands after a U.S. court decided that it did not have jurisdiction to rule on the matter,” iPolitics writes. “Shell has vehemently denied any role in the deaths, and said it had requested clemency in an attempt to prevent the fatal sentences.”
Shell “is one of Nigeria’s largest investors and gets much of its revenue from the nation,” the online daily adds. “With Shell’s large employee and investor base in The Hague, the location of its headquarters, the proceedings have brought more attention to the controversies Shell has faced with its operations in Nigeria.”
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