Chevron is really bearish on cleantech investing

A lot of the big oil companies have been making small investments in clean power and cleantech, particularly biofuels, and Chevron’s investment arm, Chevron Technology Ventures, was no exception. But Chevron’s venture group has actually been moving away from making ANY cleantech investments, and hasn’t invested in a cleantech startup in two years, according to its president, Des King.

“What we are seeing is less cleantech opportunities offered for consideration. It wasn’t as vibrant as it was a few years ago,” King said during an interview on Thursday at the California Cleantech Open, a business competition for startups.

Chevron Technology has invested nearly $200 million in 60 companies across sectors over time, with 36 of them in its current portfolio, King said. The portfolio now is made up of 50 percent in IT, 25 percent in cleantech, 20 percent in oil and gas, and 5 percent in others, he said.

There are more than a few reasons for the shift away from cleantech. One of them is the rise of natural gas, which is cheap and abundant now that new technology have been developed to extract gas from shale and new resources have been found over the past few years in the U.S. Chevron says it has been seeing new startup companies in the natural gas technology space.

At the same time, clean power – from solar to biofuels – remains uncompetitive and unprofitable, King said. Chevron is interested in solar, but is also seeing less need to make equity investments in solar technology because the tech is maturing and commoditizing. With solar panel prices coming down, Chevron is interested in deploying solar technologies rather than nurturing new startups.

Chevron’s solar projects

Chevron (s CVX) has been running technology demonstrations for a variety of solar technologies, including solar photovoltaic (solar panels), concentrating photovoltaic (using mirrors to focus light onto solar cells), and concentrating solar thermal technologies (a combo of concentrating mirrors and using the sun’s heat to produce steam, and then electricity).

Chevron unveiled its 740 KW Project Brightfield in early 2010 to test mostly thin film solar photovoltaic technologies from seven companies: Sharp, Abound Solar, MiaSole, Schuco, Solar Frontier, Solibro and Innovalight. Innovalight, unlike the others, makes silicon ink to apply to solar cells to boost the sunlight-to-electricity conversion (the company has since been bought by DuPont (s DD)).

“Some worked very well, and some we found didn’t stand up to the real environment. They cracked,” said King, who declined to name the manufacturers who produced the faulty panels. Solar panels are supposed to last 20-25 years.

Chevron has no plan to stop running Project Brightfield, which is located in Bakersfield, Calif. It’s looking at building solar power projects but will likely do so overseas where energy prices are high, King said, and he named Indonesia and Hawaii as examples. The company doesn’t want to build solar farms to sell them or operate them while selling electricity to local utilities. Instead, it wants to build them for its own use, King said.

That philosophy is evident in the unveiling of a 29 MW project by BrightSource Energy near a Chevron oil field in central California earlier this week. BrightSource, which counts Chevron as an equity investor, built the solar thermal farm to produce steam, which is then shipped to the oil field to loosen up the sticky oil and make it easy to extract.

Chevron also is running a demonstration project for concentrating photovoltaic technology in New Mexico. The company built a 1 MW project earlier this year near its molybdenum mine in Questa, New Mexico, using technology from Soitec’s Concentrix division.

Images are of Chevron’s solar to steam farm in Coalinga, and of MiaSole’s factory.