Branson: Small is beautiful in the business of sustainability

The debate about climate change has taught us that no one is going to solve global warming by edict.

(Photo: Jennifer Smith)

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The haunting images of Japan’s damaged nuclear power stations and the growing concern over rising radiation levels have left me thinking about how the world will power itself in a sustainable, safe way in the future, and how entrepreneurs can develop solutions.

For many involved in the process, the construction of modern nuclear reactors was a step that was already agreed upon in the effort to build a new system powered by sustainable energy. New reactors built around the world would supply part of the energy to meet the future needs of rapidly developing countries such as India and China. This, combined with projected advances in technology drawing on solar, wind and tidal power, formed the beginnings of a plan.

A delay in building those plants would force many nations to increase their use of coal before carbon capture and storage technologies are viable — a serious setback in the global battle to halve carbon emissions by 2050. This is the target that some scientists believe we need to meet in order to stabilize global warming at 2C above pre-industrial temperatures.

But what does “sustainable” actually mean? I use the word “sustainable” to describe ways of supplying energy sources that will remain productive over a long period of time and protect ecological diversity; technologies that we can envisage our grandchildren and their grandchildren relying on. “Sustainable” describes methods of power generation that help to preserve the Earth’s natural systems.

This is where entrepreneurs come in — most of the technologies will be created by startups that become small businesses. I don’t want to use soaring language here; no one is asking you to save the planet. Just look at the opportunities, dream up a couple of ideas and work on them. The debate about climate change has taught us that no one is going to solve global warming by edict, but local solutions and small initiatives tend to punch well above their weight. In the business of sustainable energy, small is beautiful.

Virgin’s research in this field shows that there are many technologies in development that directly or indirectly harness the power of the sun, and their potential is limitless. After all, in just one hour, the Earth receives more energy from the sun than is consumed by the whole of our society in one year.

The 84.2-megawatt Montalto di Castro Photovoltaic Power Station near Rome became Europe’s largest solar farm in December 2010. In Spain, the Planta Solar 20 concentrates solar heat in a tower 165 metres high, turning water into steam that powers an electricity turbine, generating 20 megawatts. Solar energy technologies are also rapidly advancing, with companies like Odersun producing thin-film solar cells — our own Virgin Green Fund is an investor.

Wind energy is developing especially fast in the United States, where wind farms are starting to match the output of big power stations — the Roscoe Wind Farm in Texas produces 780 megawatts, exceeding the amount of energy generated in a typical coal-fired plant, which usually totals about 550 megawatts. In the United Kingdom, a consortium of companies is building the London Array, an enormous wind farm on the Thames Estuary that should generate enough electricity to power a total of 750,000 homes when finished.

We must use the global challenges of early 2011 to shape the debate around the opportunities for investing in our future. Governments around the world must support the building of additions to the infrastructure that will allow the large-scale distribution of energy from renewable sources. Only then will these startup businesses become profitable and thrive.

If your business and interests as an entrepreneur are not in the area of sustainable energy, then look instead at what your business can do to reduce emissions. Examine every aspect of your operation for ways that you can reduce, reuse and recycle. Changing your processes probably won’t be easy, but since the business sector has been partly responsible for creating the problem in the first place, we must also be part of the solution. At Virgin, all of our businesses are continually looking at how they can minimize the impact they have on the environment.

In the next 10 years, we will all head into unknown territory as we face a vast increase in our demand for energy, yet remain worryingly over-dependent on the usage of oil. If entrepreneurs go into the field of renewable energy for the right reasons, along the way they are likely to create some very exciting new technologies and successful new businesses.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group.