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Total Eclipse: Oil Giant Sees Its Future in Electricity

France's Total SA, one of the world's largest oil companies, sent its top executives to Silicon Valley last summer, where they met with tech investors and futurists. At Tesla Inc.'s Bay Area factory, a Total executive tweeted a photo of a gleaming, red Model S - an electric car that burns no oil products at all.

The trip was meant to "open their minds," said Total Chairman and Chief Executive Patrick Pouyanné.

Total, like its peers Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC, was built to service the world’s massive demand for crude oil. Betting that demand will peak in the next few decades, Pouyanné wants to turn his company into one of the world’s biggest suppliers of electricity, or what he often calls “the energy of the 21st century.”

More than any other oil major, Total sees electricity as a hedge against oil’s eventual decline and is assembling a new business around it. Last summer, it paid $1bn for a French maker of industrial batteries. It bought a small utility that supplies gas and renewable power to households in Belgium and owns a majority stake in SunPower Corp., a California company that makes high-efficiency solar panels for governments, businesses and households.

If all goes to plan, a large piece of Total’s business will one day be selling electricity to homeowners and businesses, some generated by natural gas it has extracted and some from solar panels and battery packs. By 2035, Pouyanné said, 20 percent of Total’s energy output will be low-carbon energy such as electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar. The company recently created a “gas, renewables and power” reporting segment, which in 2016 earned about 5 percent of Total’s $9.42bn net operating income.

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