The UK newspaper the Sunday Times which regularly compiles a Rich List has now made a Green Rich List. The world’s wealthiest seem to have a recession proof taste for investments in areas as diverse as electric cars, solar power and geothermal energy.
The total wealth of the Green 100 is nearly £267 billion ($375 billion). There are 100 tycoons or wealthy families worth £200m or more who have made either serious investments in green technology and businesses or hefty financial commitments to environmental causes.
The list is dominated by America’s wealthiest financiers and entrepreneurs such as Warren Buffett (worth £27 billion) and Bill Gates (worth £26 billion). Top dogs amongst the world’s richest tycoons and entrepreneurs who have embraced environmentalism and sustainability.
These legendary investors, who regularly swap places at the top of Forbes magazine’s annual list of world billionaires, have spent some of their financial firepower on areas such as wind power and electric cars in Buffett’s case, while Gates has backed alternative fuels such as oil from algae. We are not talking trifling sums here. Buffett has invested $230m in the Hong Kong battery-maker BYD.
Many of the 35 Americans in the Top 100 are drawn from Silicon Valley. Having made their first fortunes in microchips, the internet or software, the likes of Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin (each worth £7.5 billion) are turning to green investments with all the entrepreneurial zeal that made their first fortunes. Not doubt even more spurred on by the Obama administration and it’s huge stimulus package involving the very technologies that green investors are focusing on.
Even tycoons who are not in President Barack Obama’s camp have moved into alternative energy, none more so than T Boone Pickens, oil explorer, corporate raider and a Texan Republican to his core. He is using part of his £1.8 billion fortune on filling the huge and windy Texas Panhandle with turbines as part of his Pickens Plan to wean America off its dependence on foreign energy.
American money may be chasing smarter and greener technologies, while the Chinese rich on our list are definitely about mass production of green technologies.
The 17 Chinese tycoons in the Top 100 are concentrated at the bottom end of the list and they are almost exclusively involved in solar and electric-car technology. It is a ferociously competitive market with unremitting pressure to cut costs and gain market share.
The Chinese fortunes have plunged as share prices have dropped sharply. A year ago, many would have been in the Top 50, but not now. Indeed, some of them will not survive the steep downturn they are now battling through. But out of it will emerge winners selling much cheaper and more technically advanced products to a huge market worldwide.
None of the 10 Brits on the list are competing with the Chinese in mass production. And they are not taking the German route. The seven German tycoons are largely involved in wind turbines and the like. This is a bespoke market — meat and drink to the German industrial sector.
The pity is that aside from Sir Richard Branson, who is investing in alternative fuels, there are no real British equivalents of Aloys Wobben. A German engineering graduate, Wobben started Enercon in 1984, building his first wind turbine in his back garden. Today the company employs 6,000 staff and exports sophisticated turbines all over the world.
German entrepreneurs who have made their fortunes elsewhere are also moving into green technology in a serious way, defying the prevailing economic gloom.
Twins Andreas and Thomas Strungmann built a £6.8 billion pharmaceutical fortune. Having sold their pharma business, they put many millions into saving a German solar company early last year just as the economic outlook worsened.
America’s wealthy are not just investing in new technology, they are also spending their fortunes on direct environmental activism, saving large tracts of wilderness from developers, endowing university research into green energy, climate change and the like.
This can have a huge impact in changing the mood in favour of more green activism on the political front, making the climate right for Obama to push through radical green initiatives that would not have been contemplated in George Bush’s presidency.
There is little evidence of any appetite among Britain’s super-rich for this approach. Firmly rooted in property, finance or retailing, they have little time or surplus wealth for anything other than lip service to green issues.
They are also involved in firefighting to keep their businesses afloat. When the recession is over, there are precious few forecasters who think the City and the like will return to its glory days. And with traditional factories and industries closing in record numbers, the only hope is with small ecopreneuers such as Dale Vince of Ecotricity.