A headline in The New York Times caused me to do a double-take. The headline read “Shell, the Oil Giant, Will Sell Renewable Energy to Texans.” The term “renewable energy” nestled between “oil giant” and “Texans” seemed more than a little discordant.

But all was in order. Shell is indeed selling green energy to Texans. All the energy the company sells will come from wind and solar installations in the state.

The company will offer various incentives, including providing drivers of electric vehicles with free charging at night and on weekends, when demand for electricity is low, and crediting homeowners with solar panels for the excess power they send to the grid. It intends to expand its electricity business to other parts of the U.S. as well. It is also building hydrogen fuelling stations and has bought an energy trading company that sells power to businesses.

Shell now has electricity businesses in nine countries. It has acquired a solar and wind power company in India, purchased a wind farm developer in Australia, partnered with a Chinese company to develop charging stations in Asia and Europe, and acquired a battery supplier in Germany that develops its own power networks.

Canada isn’t being ignored. Shell Canada is building an EV fast-charging network across the country, planning 79 charging ports at 36 locations spanning British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. Shell is participating in the Natural Resources Canada program to establish a coast to coast network of EV fast-chargers, and natural gas and hydrogen refuelling sites.

Shell’s leadership in the transition may have been inspired in part by the court case in the Netherlands it lost last year. A class action lawsuit was filed against the company by Friends of the Earth Netherlands, six other Dutch NGOs, and 17,000 individual co-claimants. The lawsuit argued that Shell failed to take sufficient measures to reduce emissions, in breach of its duty of care to prevent climate change. The claimants won and the court specified that the company must lower its emissions by 45 percent by 2030 relative to 2019 levels.

In any case, other European oil companies, including BP and TotalEnergies are also expanding into renewables. Total, for instance, recently announced the purchase of a 50 percent stake in Clearway Energy, a U.S. wind and solar power company. Unfortunately, American majors are showing little interest in following the Europeans’ initiatives.

Renewables make up only a fraction of these oil giants’s portfolios, as might be expected when the world persists in its insatiable demand for oil and gas. But with the energy and economic clout these companies have, if their shift to renewables is serious they could power the transition like no other force.

Even here in oil town we are seeing signs of a shift. Calgary’s annual Global Petroleum Show has been renamed the Global Energy Show, and that’s more than merely changing a word. This year the focus was on “transition.” In the past, ten percent of the floor space was dedicated to clean tech. For this year’s event, it was upped to 60 percent. Clean now dominantes.

One attendee, Peter Warren with the IT company CGI, believes that the pandemic has spurred the transition to green energy, observing, “The fact that everybody could look at the bottom of the canals in Venice and see how clean [they were], see how blue the sky got with everybody staying home, that made sustainability very tangible to a lot of people, and therefore they’re moving their money towards it rapidly.”

Mr. Warren may be a tad Pollyanish, but he could be right. Maybe it has taken a plague to wake some people up to the climate crisis.

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