July 6, 2008
NECKER ISLAND, British Virgin Islands – Richard Branson, the adventuring chairman of the Virgin Group of companies, says his two private Caribbean islands have a higher purpose than serving as ultra-luxury retreats for entertainment and business A-listers.
Walking barefoot on the sandy trails of his Necker Island, the British tycoon said his sun-soaked island properties in this British chain will prove that the Caribbean – with its wealth of sun, wind and waves – can lead the globe in renewable alternatives to carbon fuels.
"It is actually inexcusable for the Caribbean to need to use dirty fuels anymore when it has all these natural resources on its doorstep," said Branson, after pointing out Necker Island's thatched-hut villas, cascading infinity pools and a pond occupied by pink flamingos.
Branson, a high school dropout who built the Virgin empire into a world brand – including a record company, an airline, cell phones – plans for his newest property, Mosquito Island, to be transformed into what he touts as the most environmentally friendly resort on the globe.
Mosquito, an uninhabited speck of land located off the island of Virgin Gorda and within sight of Necker, currently features wind-swept scrub and a few dilapidated buildings. But Branson envisions 20 villas and a beachfront restaurant powered entirely by wind turbines and solar panels.
During a tour of Necker Island last month, he told reporters that the eco-resort's buildings would capture cool thermal airflows, eliminating the need for air conditioners. The guests' food would come from an organic orchard, and beach buggies would be powered by biofuels.
To bring renewable technology to Mosquito Island, the British billionaire has partnered with several alternative energy consultants, including Ken Kao, a Boston-based architect and lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
"The renewable energy sources of sun and wind are very promising," Kao says. "The islands receive significant solar radiance and extensive winds."
It's not a done deal yet. The British Virgin Islands planning department is still reviewing designs for the resort. But initial government response to the latest proposal by the British islands' most high-profile resident has been positive.
"They are trying to go green and be environmentally friendly with every aspect of the project. That's definitely very good for the B.V.I. because we're such a small set of islands," says Dylan Penn, the planner coordinating the government review of the resort project.
Branson, who is known for hobnobbing with celebrities and making cameo appearances in Hollywood movies, has displayed a strong commitment to developing a new biofuel for commercial jets as part of efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
Earlier this year, Branson's Virgin Atlantic carried out the world's first flight of a commercial aircraft powered with biofuel in an effort to show it can produce less carbon dioxide than normal jet fuels. The flight was partially fueled with a biofuel mixture of coconut and babassu oil (from a type of palm nut) in one of its four main fuel tanks.
Branson says he believes soaring global oil prices can be the catalyst to spur governments worldwide to develop their own eco-projects.
To replicate his vision across the region, a planned consulting group, Virgin Green Owls, is expected to start advising governments and corporations in carbon-neutral projects this August, he says.
"We've managed to prove on paper and now we'll prove in reality that the Caribbean could run with the determination of governments on solar and wind," Branson says. "There is no need to continue using dirty fuels."
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