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Q&A: Sir Richard Branson Goes Green

The Virgin Group founder’s grand scheme to bury the gas pump for good

Richard Branson

Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Group Ltd., at the 2nd annual Clinton Global Initiative summit in New York on Thursday, September 21st, 2006.

Stephen Hilger/Bloomberg via Getty

In September, you announced that your company Virgin Group would invest $3 billion in the next ten years developing alternative fuels, many of which could replace gasoline in automobiles. What motivated the investment?
Only a few years ago I thought global warming was a myth. Then I saw Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth. I Spent time with Al this summer. He said, “Look, you’re quite well known around the world, and if you made a grand gesture, that could get the ball rolling toward attacking the problem.”

Where will all this money go? 
Our Virgin Fuels division is trying to develop what’s called “cellulosic ethanol,” derived not from corn, like conventional ethanol, but from cheap and abundant sources like prairie grass, agricultural waste and the rubbish you chuck out from your home. It’s essentially emissions-free.

What other technologies are you betting on? 
We’ve had thousands of ideas proposed to us since the announcement – including clean fuel for jet engines and technology that transforms the power of the ocean into electricity. At the health clubs Virgin owns, we’re trying to rig up a gym where the people working out on the machines actually generate the power that runs the health club.

What about fuel cells? 
It could be twenty or more years before fuel-cell technology becomes affordable. We don’t have that kind of time. This problem needs to be addressed by solutions available today – like biofuels, which we can switch to cheaply and rapidly.

How soon do you expect climate-friendly biofuels to hit the mainstream?
Ethanol is already being sold in hundreds of U.S. fuel stations. Within the next twenty or thirty years, I think, it will actually replace conventional fuel.

Thirty years! Most energy economists would call that preposterous. 
As soon as we develop affordable and climate-friendly biofuels, I think, governments will rush to eliminate conventional fuels. They should ensure that by 2020, for instance, every single car is a “trybrid” – a hybrid-electric car that can run on a blend of biofuels and electricity.

Is your commitment to clean technology development motivated more by profit than philanthropic largess? 
It’s both. Keep in mind that $3 billion is tiny compared with what the oil and gas companies are investing every year in dirty fuels. We need big capital investments to fight and eventually supplant them. We’re working with the world’s best people – like Vinod Khosla, one of the world’s most brilliant minds on biofuels.

Some scientists believe we’re past the point of no return on global warming. Biofuels or any tech fix will be too little, too late.
It may already be too late to save the whales. We may not be able to stop sea levels from going up eighty feet further. But I believe there’s still time to save mankind. 

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