Does a music mogul who signed the Rolling Stones and Janet Jackson have what it takes to make a pop star out of biofuels?
Earlier this fall, publicity-chasing British entrepreneur Richard Branson made a $3 billion bet that he could do just that -- and help solve the climate crisis to boot -- via Virgin Fuels, a new company in his wide-ranging Virgin Group.
An ear for music doesn't necessarily indicate an eye for energy technology, of course. Branson has proved himself remarkably versatile over the last few decades, expanding his Virgin brand beyond the record label into successful airline, locomotive, cable, and mobile-phone companies. But there have been flops along the way -- Virgin Jeans and Virgin Cola, to name just a couple. Virgin Fuels could be an even riskier venture given that it's plunging headlong into unproven markets, but Branson insists that biofuels are a critical near-term solution to climate change and could fully supplant conventional fuels within 30 years.
Branson is aiming to green his business empire in other ways as well. This week, as part of an effort to curb greenhouse-gas emissions at his Virgin Atlantic airline, he announced a trial plan to tow planes from airport gates to runways so they won't have to burn fuel while they wait to take off.
Branson spoke with me from his private island in the Caribbean. No, he didn't extend an invitation to visit.
Grist: The world is grappling with so many grand-scale problems today -- poverty, disease, terrorism. Why did you decide to focus your efforts on global warming?
Richard Branson: What sets climate change apart from these other crises is that most people can't see the problem -- CO2 gases are invisible. If you could see them and they were colored red, 50 years ago it would have looked like a small brush fire smoldering around the world, and today it would look like a wildfire raging across the globe. We desperately need leaders who can help bring visibility and forge solutions to this imperceptible menace before it's too late.
Grist: Do you think fuel prices will -- and should -- stay high, whether because of government taxes or market forces?
Richard Branson: I pray that fuel prices stay high. For an airline owner, it's a disastrous statement to make, of course -- high fuel prices have cost the Virgin Group about a billion dollars a year in increased costs because of our trains and planes. But without high fuel prices, I don't believe people will be stirred into action to address the climate and energy crises.
Grist: Should there be government action to accelerate the development of biofuels, which is where the majority of your pledged $3 billion for climate solutions is going?
Richard Branson: Governments absolutely must play a lead in bringing this new industry forward. They should be making sure that by 2020, for instance, every single car is a "tribrid" -- a hybrid-electric, flex-fuel car that can run on a combination of electricity, ethanol, and gasoline. They should mandate that all fueling stations have ethanol well before then. And if governments do what they should, I think biofuels could replace conventional fuels within 20 to 30 years.
Grist: All the investments you've made so far center on corn-derived ethanol, but many experts have criticized this form of biofuel because of the fossil-fuel inputs required to produce the corn.
Richard Branson: Yes, corn ethanol is better for the environment than conventional fuels, but certainly not 100 percent friendly. I see it as a transition technology -- we're starting off with corn, but we plan to move the plants over to cellulosic ethanol, which can be derived from fibrous, fast-growing crops and agricultural waste. It is 100 percent climate-friendly. We're investing heavily in developing enzymes that can transform these readily available fuel sources -- whether it's prairie grass or corn stalks or willow trees or rubbish you chuck out from your home -- into fuel.
Grist: Will there be agricultural tradeoffs in the new biofuel economy? Are you concerned that an increase in biofuel products might overtake farmland and undermine food production?
Richard Branson: No, I'm not concerned. It's true that there's only room for about 10 percent of the fuel supply in the U.S. to be derived from ethanol before it starts eating into the food supply. After that you've got to go to cellulose, and I believe by the time it gets to 10 percent we will have developed a way of making cellulosic possible. Cellulose won't eat into the food supply at all.
Grist: It sounds like you see cellulosic ethanol as the be-all-and-end-all solution.
Richard Branson: Not be-all and end-all, because it will most certainly be followed by other long-term clean-fuel solutions that will eventually take its place. But I do see it as a crucial near-term transition technology. It makes sense in so many different ways. It's brilliant for farmers, and it means the governments don't have to subsidize agriculture anymore. It's brilliant for a country like America, or any country that's reliant on the Middle East for its oil. They can become self-sufficient in fuel, and they won't have billions and billions of dollars going outside the economy. And it saves the world from almost certain environmental destruction.
Grist: You've said your $3 billion investment in biofuels will come from the projected dividends from your transportation divisions over the next 10 years. Critics doubt, however, that you'll earn that much. Are you committed to that number even if your profits fall short?
Richard Branson: Yes, we will invest $3 billion in climate solutions in the next 10 years -- and hopefully sooner. If we don't get that from our transportation division profits, we'll find it from other companies. So, if necessary, we'll invest it from the mobile-phone businesses, or cable businesses, or other things.
Grist: Ted Turner told that you would probably make more money from renewable fuels than from your airlines. Do you think that was accurate, and is profit your guiding motive?
Richard Branson: Hopefully Ted is right. If we can start getting everybody switching to alternative fuels, and if as a result the conventional-fuel price doesn't collapse and drown out the alternative-fuels markets, then hopefully profits will be substantial. And if that is the case, then we can keep investing, keep investing.
Profit is my guiding motive only in that it's the only way we can compete against fossil fuels. Remember that $3 billion is negligible compared with what the oil, coal, and gas companies have. They're pouring literally hundreds of billions every year into dirty fuels. The ideal thing with this $3 billion is that we turn it into $10 billion, and other people come and invest with us. So in time we are an economic force for fossil fuels to reckon with.
Grist: Tell us about your new plan to reduce airline emissions.
Richard Branson: We think the airline industry can reduce its CO2 emissions by about 25 percent over the next two years, and we've started to trial simple, low-tech solutions at London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports that eventually all the airlines can adopt. For example, instead of turning engines on when you're at the gate and using two tons of fuel to get to the end of the runway, we're towing planes to the runway with an electric tug. There you have a parking bay where the planes can wait and then take off. There's a whole list of fuel-saving ideas along these lines that I'm encouraging the entire aviation industry to embrace, and everybody stands to gain: It will save airlines a lot of money while it cuts carbon dioxide emissions.
Grist: I understand you're also trying to bring this electric-tug plan to Chicago's O'Hare Airport, and critics are arguing that it would slow down already-congested runway traffic.
Richard Branson: The parking bays will actually reduce congestion, as planes that have landed won't have to wait around with their engines running to get to their stand.
These concerns are missing the point. Right now, it's important for everyone in the industry to work together to come up with viable solutions that don't punish the environment.
Grist: Airlines in Europe are coming under increasing pressure to curb their greenhouse gases. Do you support some type of a carbon tax for airlines?
Richard Branson: Yeah. Anything like that that cuts down greenhouse gases I support.
For instance, do we really need airplanes on short-haul routes where people could be traveling by train? Personally, I think the answer is no. If we've got an adequate train service, people should be going by train, which produces about eight times less CO2 than planes.
Grist: Should that be a government mandate too -- that no flights could take place under a certain distance?
Richard Branson: If there's an adequate train service, yes -- I think it should be government mandated.
Grist: You've admitted that not too long ago you were a climate skeptic -- that you read Bjorn Lomborg's book and believed it -- before folks like Al Gore and Ted Turner convinced you otherwise. Have you become a born-again environmentalist? If so, how has your climate activism changed your own personal lifestyle?
Richard Branson: Well, I think I've always been an environmentalist. I've been fortunate enough to have an island in the Caribbean; when I was 26 years old, I managed to buy it for $100,000. It's a beautiful little jewel. And so every day that I live there or I'm on holiday there, looking out, it's just something that's perfect. It connects me to the awe and beauty of the natural world, and reminds me that we must be a generation devoted to preserving this beauty, not destroying it.
And I'm devoted to getting my own house in order. So we've got long-range light bulbs, we're collecting the rainwater, we're building windmills, we're building little hydrogen areas to store energy.
We're also trying to rig up a gym where when somebody's working out on a treadmill or stationary bicycle or something, they generate power. Virgin owns the third-biggest chain of health clubs in the world, and I thought if we could pull off our own little experiment, then we can introduce it to all of our health clubs.
Grist: What kind of car do you drive?
Richard Branson: It's the new Saab, which is E85-friendly.
Grist: Are you reducing the number of miles you travel by airplane?
Richard Branson: My God! Well, I can't say that. But I hope that working to reduce the amount of airplane emissions counts.
Grist: Do you get involved in politics?
Richard Branson: To some extent. I've just been writing to Arnold Schwarzenegger about flex-fuel cars, and encouraging him to introduce an act to make sure that all the new cars coming to California by 2020 are fully flex-fuel.
I'm also proposing some ideas to Gordon Brown, chancellor of England.
Grist: Who do you think would do a better job of tackling climate change, Gordon Brown, the likely Labor Party leader, or David Cameron, the new Tory leader?
Richard Branson: I don't know that one would be better than the other -- they're both very committed to it.
Grist: But is Gordon Brown the candidate you're supporting?
Richard Branson: I don't support political candidates. I avoid that part of politics. I just lobby on certain issues I care about and leave it at that.
Grist: Alright, I've got to close on one question totally unrelated to the environment. Since decades ago you had the foresight to sign the Sex Pistols to your young record label, I can't resist asking: What's your favorite band now?
Richard Branson: I'd have to say U2. Does that show my age?
Amanda Griscom Little writes Grist's column on environmental politics and policy and interviews green luminaries for the magazine. Her articles on energy and the environment have also appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to The New York Times Magazine.