Why the energy revolution is one of the biggest opportunities of our time

The energy revolution is one of the biggest opportunities of our time. If I had to start all over again, I think that’s where I’d put much of my time and resources.

Watching the DS Virgin Racing team really brings home how far we have come and how the energy revolution is really underway. Formula E is a great example of how competition is driving forward huge innovations.

I’m often asked how the energy revolution affects Virgin’s strategic thinking and how we do business on a daily basis. As an investor and entrepreneur, I’ve never seen a more compelling business case than the one presented by the development of more energy-efficient systems. The falling costs of renewables and batteries make cost-effective, clean electricity unstoppable and essential to the transition to a low carbon, energy-abundant world.

I think it’s important for all businesses to treat climate action as a long-term investment rather than a short-term expenditure. Taking action now, from investing in renewables to more energy-efficient production, will not only make your business more resilient, it will also make you more competitive. A dollar spent now on clean energy, is a thousand dollars saved in the future.

In the Caribbean, where I live, building decentralised grids powered by solar and wind will help slash generation costs and make island communities far more resilient to natural disasters, like Hurricanes Irma and Maria last year. It’s a positive shift. It gives people more choice and control, and makes the local environment cleaner, along with the planet as a whole. 

One of the most exciting developments I’ve noticed is consumers are becoming increasingly aware of energy issues, and demanding answers and positive action from businesses. What sources of energy do you use? What is your energy footprint? What are you doing to be more sustainable? 

Virgin is doing some really exciting things in this space. As a Group, our activity covers a lot of sectors, including some where we are still big carbon emitters today: aviation, space travel and more recently, cruises. But we’ve set some pretty ambitious goals, and the most important one is to reach net zero emissions by 2050, ideally a lot earlier. We want to push our companies to become leading examples of business action on climate – even our top emitters.

Take aviation. I think this is one of the sectors with the greatest potential for innovation. Virgin Atlantic, for instance have made great progress in reducing the carbon footprint of every flight. Last year, Virgin Atlantic announced a 22 per cent reduction in aircraft carbon emissions over the last nine years. The majority of these emissions reductions have come thanks to our multi-billion fleet investment in more efficient aircraft (Boeing 787, A 350), as well as from operational improvements including optimized aircraft maintenance, cleaning and new flying techniques. VAA are also on the cutting edge of renewable fuel development, thanks to their brilliant partnership with LanzaTech, who turn industrial waste gases into commercial jet fuel. The project is now incredibly close to becoming a reality – with the potential to deliver big carbon savings.  

We’ve also incubated a number of projects with Virgin Unite, our entrepreneurial foundation. We set up the Carbon War Room in 2009 to work with the most polluting industries to reduce their carbon footprint. They merged with Amory Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute in 2014. Today, ‘Global Energy Transitions’ is one of RMI’s core focuses. Their ‘Islands Energy Program’ is accelerating the transition of 13 Caribbean island economies to local, renewable energy and creates a blueprint for other isolated economies. In sub-Saharan Africa, RMI launched SEED - Sustainable Energy for Economic Development with Virgin Unite and the Rockefeller Foundation. They are working with six forward-thinking governments to improve clean electricity access for people who are underserved or have no access to electricity. In China, RMI are partnering with the government to help it profitably surpass its existing national energy and emissions targets, dramatically reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, and set a clear pathway for the developing world to follow.

We have also made a number of commercial investments in renewable energy. In Jamaica, we purchased the BMR wind farm in August 2016. In addition to running the country’s largest private-sector renewable energy project, at the end of last year, BMR acquired a 5MW solar park in Guatemala. We also invested in M-Kopa, which is focused on solar power in East Africa and primarily Kenya, helping families gain access to energy using solar technology at affordable prices.

Virgin Unite, open access energy, M KOPA

Climate change need always be at the front of our minds. Although much is work going on across the group, we are constantly reminded – including by our own staff - that there is so much more we can and must be doing. When talking about climate change, many people often tell me they feel overwhelmed and that they don’t think they can make a difference. I’m lucky that I get to meet people from all around the world, and what I see is a worldwide community of people embracing this huge opportunity. From entrepreneurs starting clean energy businesses to researchers developing new technologies, the appetite for change is definitely growing all the time. But we must up the pace, and our efforts, to protect the future of our grandchildren. 


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