Branson’s Carbon War Room and Rocky Mountain Institute to merge in CO2 fight

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Virgin tycoon Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room and sustainability expert Amory Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute are set to merge, in an effort to scale up their respective operations in the fight against climate change.

Both groups actively pursue the promotion of market-based solutions to environmental problems, with a shared focus on carbon emissions reduction and support for a low carbon economy.

Following the merger, which was announced yesterday, the two non-profit entities will continue to run as separate brands, with the Rocky Mountain Institute continuing to play the role of high-level think-tank, while the Carbon War Room will continue its entrepreneurial approach. However the two organisations said that the merger will allow both to scale up their operations.

According to an interview given to the journal Scientific American, by Rocky Mountain Institute chief executive officer Jules Koltenhorst, former Chile president José Maria Figueres Olsen, who is currently chairman of RMI’s board, will lead the board of the combined operation.

RMI was founded by Amory Lovins and his former wife L. Hunter Lovins in 1982. In its time, it has produced the analysis 'Reinventing Fire', authored by Lovins, who still serves as chief scientist at the institute. The book looked, among other things, at the way the true costs of energy from fossil fuels are hidden by a distorted market, especially in the US where subsidies and tax breaks have propped up heavy industry.

Its way of thinking has informed much of RMI’s work, with the institute in recent years coming to emphasise the opportunities presented by a switch to a low-carbon economy as well as the challenges. Much of this includes a focus on energy efficiency and rethinking of current energy usage and demand, an approach also shared by the Carbon War Room.

At the beginning of this year, RMI published a report, 'The economics of grid defection', which claimed to be the first in-depth analysis of the possibility of customers “defecting” from grid networks by using a combination of solar power and electrical energy storage (EES). It predicted that while in some parts of Hawaii solar plus storage has already reached grid parity, other areas such as New York could follow suit before 2030. Last year PV Tech picked out Amory Lovins as one of the top solar figures to follow on social media platform Twitter.

Commenting on the merger, Lovins said it would allow RMI to capitalise on CWR’s experience in the corporate world and followed a tradition of partnerships with relevant organisations and companies for his institute.

“For more than 32 years, we had partnered with industry and business with significant successes in transforming energy use across the transportation, buildings, industrial and electricity sectors. Now, we can capitalise on Carbon War Room’s proven ability to engage and excite corporate executives, entrepreneurs and investors to rally around innovative ideas and take action,” Lovins said.

The Carbon War Room meanwhile, was founded by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin group that includes Virgin Atlantic airlines in its portfolio of companies. Its self-stated role is to bring opportunities in low carbon and ‘clean’ technology to the attention of entrepreneurs and other sources of capital. CWR focuses, it says “on the market barriers that reinforce the status quo and prevent capital from flowing to sustainable solutions with compelling returns”.

The two groups have already collaborated on the Ten Island Challenge, which seeks to assist Caribbean island economies to wean themselves off dependence on fossil fuels.

Both organisations argue that while strong policy is an important driver for change and technological innovations desirable, in many ways facilitating the flow of capital towards improvements in energy and energy use should be the immediate goal of those who fight climate change at an industrial level. Branson, in announcing the news on his page at Virgin.com, said it was better to talk about in terms of “massive opportunity”, rather than as “doom and gloom” and echoed the “market-based approach” sentiment.

“RMI’s decades of energy-system expertise combined with Carbon War Room’s bold entrepreneurial approach will bring these low-carbon technologies to the attention of industries and carry the technologies to a tipping point where choosing anything but the clean option won’t make good business sense.”

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