by Andrew Ross Sorkin
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March 22, 2008
Richard Branson, seated, prepares for a sailing excursion off Necker Island with a group of his visitors including Jimmy Wales, third from right, and Tony Blair, second from left.
NECKER ISLAND, British Virgin Islands — Richard Branson was lounging under the starry midnight sky on this palm-dappled speck of an island recently when he popped a sobering question.
“So, do we really think the world is on fire?” Mr. Branson, the British magnate and adventurer, asked several guests as a manservant scurried off to fetch him another glass of pinot grigio.
What he wanted to know was whether his high-powered visitors, among them Larry Page of Google, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain, thought global warming threatened the planet.
Mr. Branson does — and so did most of his guests. So on this recent weekend they assembled here, on his private hideaway in the waters between the islands of Tortola and Anegada, to figure out what to do about it and perhaps get richer in the process.
Some of them, like Mr. Page, jet-pooled in from Silicon Valley, where the financiers who bankrolled the Web boom of the 1990s are chasing the new New Thing: green power. In an era of $100-a-barrel oil, venture capitalists like Vinod Khosla, another invitee, are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into young companies that cook up biofuels and harness the power of the sun.
Mr. Blair, now a senior adviser to JPMorgan Chase, squeezed in a few idyllic hours here between assignments (he flew in late from California and left early for Jerusalem). Another attendee only sort-of showed up. The Medusa, the 198-foot yacht owned by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, was moored off Necker Island all weekend, but Mr. Allen never made an appearance.
Mr. Branson hopes the Caribbean getaway weekend will be the first of many, an intimate, enviro-version of the annual media gathering in Sun Valley, Idaho, sponsored by Allen & Company. It was the brainchild of Richard Stromback, a former professional hockey player who has remade himself as a clean-technology entrepreneur. Mr. Stromback, who was host of the weekend and is the chief executive of Ecology Coatings, joked that a gathering like this might seem nefarious to some people.
“In James Bond movies, evil-doers meet in exotic settings to plot the destruction of the planet,” Mr. Stromback said, puffing on a cigar before dinner. “This is the opposite of that.”
So far, however, the hopes and dreams of alternative energy have far outstripped reality. But for Mr. Stromback and many others here, a confluence of two powerful forces — soaring oil prices and growing concern over global warming — means the era of economically viable green power is finally at hand.
Many executives and financiers, including some in attendance, have a lot of money riding on global warming. Mr. Branson, for example, has invested in a host of alternative energy enterprises, including recently flying the first biofuel-powered plane engine for Virgin Atlantic. He also put up $25 million in prize money to challenge scientists to find a way to extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Mr. Khosla, the founding chief executive of Sun Microsystems and one of the most successful venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, has at least 33 investments in clean tech, including new fermentation technology to make fuel-grade ethanol.
Much of the weekend was spent hashing over ideas in Mr. Branson’s new open-air yoga pavilion in between massages, kite-surfing lessons and meals on beaches around the island, which Mr. Branson said he bought for £180,000 in the late-1970’s and now rents for as much as $250,000 a week to outside guests. (He’s trying to make the island carbon-neutral and has erected a test windmill.) Talk ranged from the practicality of electric-powered cars to how much money would have to be invested in biofuels to reduce the price of crude to $35 a barrel, a prospect Mr. Khosla said he considered “totally realistic.”
But the big question that hung over the meeting was whether the world could ever work together to tackle climate change and emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.
“We have an agreement that there should be an agreement,” said Mr. Blair, dressed in a white polo shirt, blue cargo shorts and Nike sneakers. “But there’s no agreement on what that agreement should be.”
Mr. Blair, who last week announced his Breaking the Climate Deadlock Initiative, predicted that the United States would soon adopt a so-called cap and trade system for carbon emissions, as the European Union has done, with mixed success. But, he contended, “I’m a little skeptical that it will work unless it’s part of a global deal.”
As an alternative, Shai Agassi, the former president of SAP’s product and technology group, suggested having companies buy carbon insurance. Insurance companies, after all, price all kinds of risks. “They know how to put a price on it better than the bookies,” said Mr. Agassi, whose start-up, Better P.L.C., is trying to support the use of fleets of electric vehicles in Israel and elsewhere. (Stanley Fink, the deputy chairman of the Man Group, the world’s largest hedge fund, with $72 billion, suggested that insurance companies often misprice risk — as in the subprime debacle.)
Everyone, it seemed, had some project in the works. Elon Musk, the co-founder of Paypal, talked about his latest project: Tesla Motors, a Silicon Valley company that makes sexy electric sports cars retailing for $100,000. Mr. Page has ordered one.
D. Hunt Ramsbottom, the chief executive of Rentech, talked about his plans to make biofuels for airplanes. William McDonough, the designer, showed renderings of recent planned projects: a building in Abu Dhabi with solar panels built into the windows and a distribution center with a grass roof. And Mr. Page, who was married on Necker Island a few months ago, talked about problems with permits that Google has faced in trying to use solar energy.
With no naysayers on the island, the weekend, which was organized in part by the Climate Group, a nonprofit, was filled with hopeful talk about the “war against carbon,” as Mr. Branson put it. But there was also talk of money, which most of the attendees had plenty of. And to make any of these technologies successful, they all agreed the solutions had to be profitable without subsidies.
“It can’t work any other way,” Mr. Khosla said.
Mr. Page of Google complained that it is still too easy to make a profitable environmentally friendly product that does not go far enough. “We need to give people permission to think really big,” he said. He recounted how when an engineer told him he could produce electricity at 10 cents a kilowatt, he asked if it could be brought down to 3 cents.
After a breakfast of scrambled eggs with salmon on the deck outside the main house Sunday morning, Mr. Branson spent most the day talking about his next big idea. He wants to create a coalition of the most respected people in business to help champion environmental “best practices” — a resource for governments and multinational companies looking for help as they develop environmentally sound policies.
He is tentatively calling the group the War Room. He wants to model it after another group he formed last year, the Elders, with Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela’s wife, Graça Machel, to help solve the world’s political and humanitarian problems.
Mr. Branson was canvassing for names to run it. Someone wondered: what about Warren Buffett?
Of course, there was plenty of time for fun and games. After lunch one afternoon Mr. Branson suggested the entire group sail off to Mosquito, a nearby island he also owns, aboard a dozen catamarans. He said there was a party over there.
One of Mr. Blair’s security personnel trailed behind in a motorboat. Mr. Page, an avid kite surfer, struck out alone.
As the catamarans beached on Mosquito, music was blaring and women in bikinis were dancing. Mr. Branson deadpanned, “Normally the girls would be naked, but the prime minister is here.”
Andrew Ross Sorkin reported from Necker Island and added updated information from New York.