February 28, 2008

Virgin Air Flying on Fumes?

[To my blog readers, I've started writing for Huffington Post, so i'll be re-posting some of those here -- these entries will be a bit longer than my usual]

On Sunday, Virgin Airlines flew a jumbo jet from London to Amsterdam powered in part by coconuts ("a biofuel mixture of coconut and babassu oil" to be more precise). Some would say the applicable part of that sentence is "nuts." Is this another wacky Richard Branson moment, or something legitimate and important? Or, as is all things Branson, maybe it's both?

It's easy to throw stones at Virgin's attempt and call it a publicity stunt. But it's pretty hard to chalk it up entirely to PR when Branson has pledged $3 billion, or all expected profits from his travel divisions, to battle climate change. But remember, this is Branson — PR stunts are his bread and butter, and they're a legitimate form of marketing if you have something to say. In the environmental realm, it's pretty important that what you say is real and credible though. So let me throw an important pebble before moving on to some positive thoughts on what Branson is up to.

The main problem is biofuels as a whole. I have no energy crystal ball — I have no idea which energy technologies will win. Nobody else really does either. But studies are showing that there are some real problems with biofuels when they're created in most of the ways we currently have. Science magazine just reported on a very important study of the greenhouse gas impact of biofuels (see abstract here). In short, corn ethanol is just nutty (I'm paraphrasing the scientists a bit). It creates double the greenhouse gases of fuel since we have to clear land for the additional crops, and thus release carbon stored in the trees. I'd also add that burning our food when we're heading toward 9 billion hungry mouths doesn't seem that smart. Even fast-growing switchgrass, which President Bush has praised, apparently increases emissions 20%. So a shift to new kinds of fuels isn't going to be easy. And it's very unlikely that as Branson says, "This breakthrough will help Virgin Atlantic to fly its planes using clean fuel sooner than expected.

But now for the praise and the good stuff. First, from an environmental strategy standpoint what Branson is doing makes sense. As every company should, Virgin is looking at its own (substantial) direct environmental "footprint." Planes burn a lot of fuel. Going green in that business will be hard — since you can't put a solar panel on a plane, there aren't that many options.

So, second, we need experimentation. While money is being poured into working on all kinds of biofuels, we need parallel experimentation on what to do with that fuel. Demonstrating potential demand for new fuels will help speed the investment and development of new technologies. Now, we may discover that all biofuels don't work from a life-cycle perspective, but until we know that for sure, trying out different combinations of fuels and vehicles is not a bad idea. As Branson put it, the flight would provide "crucial knowledge that we can use to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint." Again, he's probably ahead of himself a bit, but generating knowledge is a pretty good goal at this point.

Third, Branson is pushing the boundaries in other ways. Of course his biofuels pursuit may be a blind alley. So it's good that he's taken some other ground-breaking steps (in addition to that very unusual pledge of profits). Look at the fairly fun announcement he made about a $25 million award (my previous blog here) for anyone who can take carbon out of the atmosphere (harking back to the prize set in the 1700s for finding a way to measure longitude — a great book on that story here).

When you look at the contest Branson started, at first it's crazy, but then has some strong logic to it (much like many of his seemingly wild ideas that create giant new businesses). Since directly reducing the emissions will be hard, and a company called Virgin Air can't go around promoting alternatives for having meetings — although don't bet against a Virgin Teleconference business to do just that — then why not do something about the impact of the planes. Planting trees is nice, but a technology that pulls carbon out of the air could be a big business. I can't say whether it's feasible, but why not look into it?

Of course the greenest answer is not to fly at all, but that isn't going to happen anytime soon (I'll look at this in a follow-up post). But back to Branson. Given (a) how much innovation there may be to avoid flying, (b) the rising cost of energy that will drive some slow down in growth of flying, and (c) the responsibility Branson clearly feels for keeping his business and the planet healthy, isn't a good thing that he's trying to find ways to reduce the impact from flying?

Shouldn't somebody?

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