Shell's "renegades" on the hunt for green game-changers

Deep geothermal power, zero carbon homes, renewable energy kites, and potentially even satellite solar arrays; not the portfolio of the latest clean-tech venture firm or a list of projects being pursued by a government research agency, but rather a series of initiatives currently being backed or considered for backing by oil giant Shell.

It might have plenty of critics within the environmental movement, but over the past few years the European oil major has quietly funnelled around $20m a year to support highly innovative advanced research projects and initiatives with the potential to deliver deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions.

Dubbed Shell GameChanger, the initiative has backed a host of clean energy projects in recent years and is inviting engineers and inventors with potentially “game-changing” ideas to contact the company to explore the possibility of seed funding.

“The aim is to bring a Silicon Valley mentality into Shell,” explained Michael Ruggier, a member of the 12-strong GameChanger team, which has also provided support to this week’s Clean and Cool trade mission to San Francisco. “We have a separate, independent budget to do things that are really different. We are kind of renegades.”

He added that the scheme aimed to back technology ideas that display real “novelty” and have the potential to prove genuinely “disruptive” to the global energy sector.

However, unlike many corporate venturing arms the scheme does not aim to take a stake in start-ups. “We want to be able to use the resulting technology, we are not looking for equity, we want to be become a customer for the technology, so there is a real win-win for the people we work with,” Ruggier explained.

The ultimate goal is to identify a handful of technologies that could revolutionise the energy sector.

“We need radical innovation in this space,” Ruggier added, noting that the basic design of technologies such as wind turbines has not fundamentally changed since windmills were captured in Rembrandt’s sketches.

“People get complacent that innovation will solve our problems because it always has in the past, but time is ticking on and we need to see those radical solutions,” he argued.

One project that Ruggier hopes will provide one of those radical solutions is a new drill technology that promises to operate in temperatures of up to 30,000ºC, a breakthrough that could slash the cost of geothermal power stations and allow the technology to operate in areas previously unsuitable for geothermal energy.

Similarly, Shell is supporting a European project that promises to develop wind turbines that are attached to kites, allowing them to access more reliable high altitude winds and operate without the need to deploy tonnes of carbon-intensive steel and concrete.

Other projects include an initiative to develop modular homes that can operate with zero carbon emissions, while Ruggier is even currently considering sci-fi style plans for a satellite solar array that could transmit usable power back to Earth.

The relatively small size of GameChanger initiative compared to the scale of Shell’s continued fossil fuel activities will inevitably attract accusations of “greenwash”. But Ruggier is insistent that the company is fully committed to both supporting cutting-edge green technologies and, more broadly, diversifying its energy mix.

“We are going to have to battle to meet growing demand even with conventional energy, we need three Saudi Arabias in the next decade just to keep supply levels constant,” he warned. “There has to be diversification of our energy mix, we have to pursue everything… We need disruptive technologies and we are in a really privileged position to make a difference.”

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