Branson’s Learning Curve, Virgin Earth Challenge Part 2

November 02, 2017 by Denis Pombriant

This is the second in a four part series on the Virgin Earth Challenge (VEC) proposed by Richard Branson. Parts are excerpted from “The Age of Sustainability.”

The Prize

Sir Richard Branson and Al Gore at the VEC announcement.

Some of the finalist ideas submitted in Richard Branson’s VEC, while interesting, do not appear to have been thought through and are outside of the parameters set for the competition. Dangling $25 million before the world will do that. Some proposals suggested reflecting solar radiation back into space using aerosols or orbiting reflectors. This might reduce the amount of radiation reaching the planet’s surface thereby limiting the amount of heat that could be trapped but it could easily miss the mark, too. After all green plants depend on sunlight to capture carbon and to make food. Reducing the energy reaching the surface might have unpredictable and deleterious effects on weather so such proposals seem to suggest fixing one problem by creating another.

Proposals like reflecting sunlight, avoided the central point of the challenge—removing carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere to reduce the threat of global warming and climate change. For instance, some of the solutions suggested ways to capture pollution “at the smoke stack” (that is, burning carbon but preventing exhaust gasses entering the air) or they captured carbon but then relied on other inventions to come along to store it. They weren’t whole solutions. The VEC was focused on removing carbon from the air with a net reduction of pollution, not simply avoiding emissions, and for a good reason. There’s already too much carbon aloft so reducing the rate of increase wouldn’t do enough.

In addition, most of the solutions required large and unaccounted for inputs of energy to safely capture and dispose of carbon. It’s one thing to produce a demonstration project that ticked all of the boxes but on a planetary scale the solution has to be self-sufficient in energy. Where would that energy come from? What would it cost? By producing the energy to capture the pollution would we create more pollution thus making it impossible to get ahead of the problem? Very quickly the Branson team realized that the problem they wanted to solve had a lot more moving parts to account for and without a better definition of the problem, no solution was likely.

Branson deserves a great deal of credit for coming up with the challenge idea and for staking $25 million of his own money on it, even though the prize goes unclaimed so far. The effort is not exactly over: 10 finalists have been named and their work on prototypes continues, though it’s hard to see how any one will meet with success.

Similarities and differences

Branson was right on target when he offered the Virgin Earth Challenge prize making a parallel with two of the greatest prize challenges in history. John Harrison won the Longitude Prize (offered in 1714), for inventing the first practical chronometer. With this device a navigator could have an accurate sense of the time at a standardized location. Comparing local time with standard time would result in the correct longitude. Similarly Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic and opened the way to modern aviation.

Lindbergh and Harrison had two very different challenges. Harrison knew how to make a long-case pendulum clock but he had to reinvent timekeeping on his way to building a chronometer that had no pendulum but that could withstand a turbulent life at sea. He also had to show that time differs by location, something we take for granted but a revolution in his day.

In comparison, Lindbergh needed to perfect the airplane only enough to carry adequate fuel and continue to run for the 33.5 hours that the trip would ultimately take. He wasn’t, for example, challenged with inventing the airplane or building the first jet engine. Lindbergh’s great challenges included raising money ahead of the effort, staying awake long enough to make the trip, and navigating across an ocean. Aerial navigation in 1927 was as precarious as maritime navigation in 1714. Lindbergh carried extra fuel in part to ensure he could recover from getting lost.

The impetus of the $25,000 Orteig Prize in 1919 gave significant encouragement to the aviation industry well before Lindbergh was even a pilot, so he was riding the crest of an innovation wave. By 1926–27, when he put his syndicate together, Lindbergh could order a custom airplane built from off-the-shelf components that had steadily improved since the prize had first been offered. That’s not to say Lindbergh’s attempt was easy but it was different. On the flight he needed to deal with icing on the wings, cloud cover that prevented navigation at some points, and fatigue from flying for nearly a day and a half.

Lindbergh and Harrison had many other things in common, too. Each had to deal with the issues of raising money and having enough to pay the bills while pursuing a dream to do something that no one had ever done before. But also, each had a clear idea of his objective and well-defined metrics for his results. With Lindbergh and Harrison,  in mind, it’s fair to ask if the Branson team asked the right questions and if it did, was it receptive to the answers? Having the sheer vision (and chutzpah) to offer such a prize is one thing. But it looks as though the Branson team was looking for a Lindbergh-like solution to a Harrisonian problem.

In the next installment we’ll look at what makes a successful solution for the climate challenge.

…to be continued.


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