Oil giants’ surprising bets on fusion and biofuel

Phillip 66’s San Francisco Refinery

Phillips 66

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Here’s what you need to know:Want to get Power Line in your inbox every Friday? Sign up here. Most of our content is available to BI subscribers. Click here for 20% off. Got feedback? Email us at spent part of my week searching for a rescue dog to adopt and then name Jumanji — Manji for short, of course. Should you have information on how to acquire a dog, or tips on energy companies, please reach out. Let’s get to it. The rise of invisible power plantsThere are no smokestacks, no wind turbines. There’s no facility at all.

The power comes, instead, from hundreds of backup batteries inside homes across the country. When they collectively release energy to the grid, they can generate a similar amount of electricity to a traditional power plant. That’s the thinking behind Sunrun’s “virtual” power plant model. The company’s main product is rooftop solar panels, but it also sells loads of batteries that store backup power. Batteries are big business for Sunrun, as the company’s CEO told investors on Monday.Sunrun makes money selling them to solar customers, but the firm is also turning those batteries into virtual power plants (VPPs), which are driving a separate stream of revenue.For a closer look at the future of Sunrun and what its planned acquisition of Vivint Solar means for its battery strategy, check out our full story here. 

Read more: Sunrun is set to inherit almost 200,000 new customers overnight. Its CFO tells us how the solar giant plans to turn them into profit.Meet the 25 energy startups backed by Bill GatesGates has funneled a small fraction of his wealth into the clean energy industry. (A small fraction of his wealth is, as it turns out, a lot of money.) We combed through PitchBook, press releases, and other sources to find all the clean-energy companies he’s backing through his investment vehicles, including Breakthrough Energy Ventures.You can check out all 25 startups here. 

Big oil companies bet on fusion, biofuelFusion: It’s the same process that powers the sun, and now oil giant Chevron is betting that it will be part of the future of energy. On Wednesday, the company said it’s investing in Zap Energy, a Seattle-based fusion startup. Chevron isn’t ready to join some of its peers in eschewing oil, but it does want some skin in the clean-energy game. We talked to the president of Chevron Technology Ventures, its venture arm, which has $350 million in investments. Check out the interview here. Biofuel: This week, Phillips 66, a major oil refiner, announced it was transforming one of its big refineries into a renewable fuel plant. The Houston-based company says the updated plant will be the largest renewable fuel plant in the world. The plant will turn used cooking oil, fats, greases, and soybean oil into diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel for the California market, which has a low-carbon-fuel standard. Fine print: Phillips 66 also said it would shut down its Santa Maria refinery in Arroyo Grande, California, in 2023, potentially putting more than 100 jobs at risk.  Bankruptcy watch: 15 oil companies at riskMore than 30 North American oil exploration and production companies have filed for bankruptcy since the start of the year — up about two thirds since the same period last year, according to the law firm Haynes and Boone. 

More bankruptcies are likely on the horizon, thanks to cheap oil, which makes production far less profitable. Price check: Brent crude is down 32% since the start of the year, stalled at around $45 a barrel. “It is reasonable to expect that a substantial number of producers will continue to seek protection from creditors in bankruptcy even if oil prices recover over the next few months,” the firm said. At risk: Fitch Ratings shared its list of “top bonds of concern” for oil and gas companies, which includes the companies most likely to default on their debt. See the full list of 15 companies here. 

Read more: This energy downturn is looking totally different than previous busts. Here’s how a wave of bankruptcies could play out.5 big stories we didn’t coverThe Trump administration weakened methane regulations this weak, “effectively freeing oil and gas companies from the need to detect and repair methane leaks,” the New York Times reports. Oil giant Occidental Petroleum lost about $8.4 billion in the second quarter “on lower energy prices and write-downs,” Reuters reports. The company took out loads of debt to acquire Anadarko Petroleum last year. Norwegian oil major Equinor is getting a new CEO as the company “looks to speed up a move into renewable energy,” Reuters reports.The clean energy industry added 3,200 new jobs in July, “a glimmer of positive news for a sector that by May had lost more than 620,000 jobs,” Bloomberg Law reports.Biden’s VP pick, Kamala Harris, bring’s a record of climate-change policy and environmental justice to his campaign, the Washington Post reports.That’s it! Have a great weekend. – Benji 

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