ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson made waves recently when he told shareholders gathered at his company’s annual meeting that ExxonMobil was not making significant investments in renewable energy because “[w]e choose not to lose money on purpose.”

His remarks served him well as an applause line, but surely Tillerson is well informed enough to know that, beyond the meeting’s ballroom walls, his comment would be (and was) roundly viewed as well outside the mainstream. In fact, if he had been in a different ballroom two weeks earlier, along with 600 investors, company representatives and NGOs, at Ceres’ annual conference in San Francisco, he would have heard a very different story.


He would have heard Ray Wood, managing director and Head of US Power & Renewables at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, describe why so many investors and Fortune 500 companies are successfully investing in renewable energy, and why the biggest contributors to new grid capacity over the last two years were wind and solar energy, not new coal- or gas-fired power plants.

If renewables were only money losers, it’s doubtful that Bank of America would have recently issued its second green bond, worth $600 million as part of a $70 billion, multi-year strategy to invest in clean energy (on top of a $50 billion dollar, 10-year initiative launched just two years ago).

And neither would the bank have announced a new partnership with SolarCity, the nation’s largest provider of solar energy systems, to create a $200 million fund that will bring more capital from smaller-scale investors into the booming residential solar energy market.

As Wood told the crowd, “It’s a good policy for us, the right moral answer, and it’s also good business.”

What Bank of America knows about profiting from renewables isn’t a secret; Citi recently decided that it would be a good idea to commit $100 billion over the next 10 years to finance renewable energy and other projects that will address the challenge of climate change.

If Tillerson had been in that ballroom in San Francisco, he also would have heard Wood’s co-panelist, Steve McBee, president of NRG Home, a unit of NRG Energy, one of the largest power companies in the country. Sure, NRG is doing just fine selling electricity generated in part by burning fossil fuels, and ExxonMobil has managed to cover its losses from falling oil prices in the short term. But unlike ExxonMobil, NRG knows that the world is changing and that it needs to adapt if it wants to ensure long-term profitability.

As McBee told conference participants, “You’re much better off being on the edge and taking a risk than modulating your position because you’re too late. The gap between late and early is a very thin line.”

That’s why NRG has a plan to significantly reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions and NRG Home is offering to deliver solar energy systems to its residential customers. Certainly a large power company wouldn’t choose to promote a technology undermining its traditional business model of earning more by selling more electricity generated at large, central power stations, if it expected to lose money on the investment.

ExxonMobil’s leaders may want to downplay the evolution of an energy system that is far less dependent on fossil fuels, but they know that change is coming. What they seemingly fail to appreciate is the pace of that change, and their ability to control it.

In the words of Amory Lovins, the co-founder and chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute, who also spoke at the Ceres conference, “the pace of transformation is set not by incumbents, but by insurgents.”“the pace of transformation is set not by incumbents, but by insurgents.”

The CEO of a large U.S. incumbent, Mary Barra of General Motors, understands that sentiment very well. Last October she noted that the auto industry “will experience more dramatic change in the next decade than it has in the past 50 years,” as it diversifies into “mobility services.” Barra understands that the long-term future of her company depends in part on electrified vehicles, increasingly powered by renewable energy.

Meanwhile, California, a state with an economy bigger than all but seven countries, continues to push a clean energy agenda, most recently with the introduction of Senate Bill 350, which aims, by 2030, to reduce the in-state use of petroleum by 50 percent (in part through increased vehicle electrification), while increasing the state’s use of renewable energy and the energy efficiency of the state’s buildings by 50 percent each (making renewable energy an even more viable option for meeting electricity demand).

Without question, the market for profitable investment in renewable energy is growing. The same can’t be said for the size of Rex Tillerson’s dismissive audience.

John Weiss is an electric utility expert at Ceres, a nonprofit sustainability advocacy organization that mobilizes company and investor leadership on climate change, water scarcity and other sustainability challenges.

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