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Richard Branson pledges to turn Caribbean green

Richard Branson

Richard Branson says Caribbean islands could use renewables for most of their energy needs within five years. Photograph: Jenny Bates for the Observer


Powered by article titled “Richard Branson pledges to turn Caribbean green” was written by John Vidal, for The Observer on Saturday 8th February 2014 12.26 UTC

The palm trees and billiard table have been shipped in, work on the infinity pool overlooking the coral reef is progressing and the tennis courts are celebrity-ready. But few of the super-luxury buildings rising on Moskito island’s beaches are finished yet.

Moskito is Sir Richard Branson’s number two Caribbean island, but it will soon be his new family complex. It is just over a mile from Necker island, which he bought in his 20s for £250,000 and now rents for £40,000 a night.

Both islands are eco-trophies for Britain’s best-known entrepreneur, but his plans to ditch the use of diesel power and to generate electricity from wind and solar are expected to have a profound impact on dozens of far poorer nearby islands facing crippling debt, hurricanes and climate change.

Last week Branson hosted a summit of financiers, politicians, energy companies, lawyers and others on Moskito and Necker to work up a plan to “green” the Caribbean, island by island. Five prime ministers and 12 governments, as well as international bankers and investors, heard renewable energy experts explain how the region’s islands, which currently generate nearly all their electricity from diesel, could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year and reduce emissions by 50% or more.

Necker and Moskito will be 75-80% converted to use renewable energy and become working models for how other islands could cut expensive diesel imports, while all Caribbean governments will be offered a technical and financial blueprint on how to switch, by US energy thinktank the Rocky Mountain Institute and Branson’s green business group, Carbon War Room.

So far the governments of Aruba, St Lucia, the British Virgin Islands, St Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, the Turks and Caicos, Dominica and the Colombian islands of Providencia and San Andrés have said that they will aim to increase their use of renewable energy and cut diesel imports. Last week the US government’s private-sector lending arm said it would support the efforts by the islands to go green by offering loans of up to $250m for renewable energy and energy-saving projects.

“This is personal and global. Moskito is now our family home. We know that islands will suffer the most from climate change and sea level rise. Reefs will be devastated, and wildlife decimated,” Branson told the Observer in an interview. “It’s realistic to think that whole islands could be 75-80% clean energy in four to five years. It might not make sense to do the last 25%, but they all ought to be able to go 75-80% using wind and solar energy.

“Governments [here] need help. I think a lot of ministers may be new to the job; they can’t be experts at climate or energy. Some need a helping hand to make the transition to renewables. We can really save families 40% of what they have to pay for electricity,” he said.

The irony of a man whose rail and airline companies are significant climate polluters trying to “green” small island states is not lost on Caribbean governments. Branson said it has led him to invest heavily in green fuels, solar panels and other “clean-tech” developments. “There is no question that Virgin is involved in a number of businesses that emit a lot of carbon, and that is one of the reasons why I have to work particularly hard … but, more importantly, to try to help other people balance their books as well,” he said.

However, he said he has lost many millions of pounds in failed green investments. “We have invested hundreds of millions in clean technology projects. We haven’t made hundreds of millions profit.

“We had to write off a $50m investment in [US solar panel manufacturer] Solyndra in 2011. We went in with the best of intentions. The thing was that the price of solar had collapsed in China. So from a global perspective it could be said to be positive. We got in quite early. Pioneers can always come a cropper, like Freddie Laker. They often pave the way for others. But we are still standing, and investing.”

Branson’s investments in cleaner aviation fuel continue, but are nowhere near ready to scale up for commercial use. Peak oil – the expected point of maximum global oil production before it starts to decline – and a widely predicted hike in fuel prices have not happened and, if anything, he said, the world should expect the oil price to fall rather than rise in the next few years because of fracking.


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