I worked for BP for most of the 80s, first as an economist, then in mergers and acquisitions and finally in business planning in Paris. I had a great experience over the years and learned a lot that stood me in good stead in later times. So, much as the company is reviled for its hydrocarbon production and investment these days, I retain an interest in what it is doing. I mention this as context for my story here.
I read recently that Lightsource BP – a joint venture in which BP has a 50% stake – had just delivered its first solar project in India. A good thing, I’d say, whatever you think of the wider company. But it also made me chuckle, and ponder on what might have been, because of an experience that I had back in late 1984, or maybe 1985. The memory is hazy about the date, but not the experience.
At the time I was in the HQ economics team in London. In the City, not far from Moorgate tube station. I was the economist for East and South Asia, amongst other things. In 1984/85 it was agreed that we should make a trip to India, to explore its investment potential – especially in the area of solar power. I was 25 (or maybe 26) and very excited about this. I’d been to India – Mumbai and Goa – once before, but the chance to discover new places and to help BP pioneer solar power in the country, was a wonderful opportunity. Plans were made, interviews and visits arranged, hotels booked. It was taking shape.
I went out and bought myself a lightweight suit. Not a colonial beige, but a light grey Prince of Wales check, double breasted, baggy in the style of the time. One of my friends later said I looked like a spiv in it, but I thought it was cool. It would work for India and back home. It was going to be so good!
And then the message came down from the Chairman’s office – the trip was off. I heard – second hand, so who knows what was really said – that the Chairman didn’t give a f*** about India. He was getting BP to concentrate on its core business after a period of diversification, which included the purchase of an American dog biscuit company! He also instituted some cost cutting in head office, which included getting rid of the tea ladies, who brought round tea/coffee and biscuits (Penguins once a week) in the morning and afternoon. We were gutted. And I was gutted about the cancellation of my trip to India, though the suit got good use for a few years before it went out of fashion. The tea ladies were redeployed to the canteen, which survived for a few more years. Still employed, but they looked sad there – there had been a bond with all of us when they came round the office twice a day.
So I never got to India with BP, though I did later have fascinating trips to South Korea and New York; and, in my last job at the company, work in Paris for a year or so.
But what an opportunity BP missed all that time ago to pioneer investment in renewable energy in a country that, in its vastness, with many of its rural areas not linked to electricity grids at the time, was perfect for a new approach to energy provision.
The world is paying the price for all the missed opportunities of the past: some wilful, some because of the laws of capital, in which short term profit and shareholder value trumps all. Big energy companies aren’t run by bad people, but they answer to demands – from shareholders, from all of us, with our cars, our plastics, our energy needs – that haven’t yet adapted to the needs of the planet.
So, the new investments by Lightsource BP must be welcomed; but what a shame that the biscuit-denying chairman of BP decided he couldn’t give a f*** about India all those years ago!