Dedicated follower of passion
PUBLISHED: 11:25 03 March 2014 | UPDATED: 11:38 03 March 2014
© Thousand Word Media
They seek him here, they seek him there, his views are loud, but never square. It will make or break him but he's got to do his best, cause he's a dedicated follower of passion. Nicky Godding speaks to Dale Vince, owner of Stroud-based energy company Ecotricity - and hippie environmentalist.
As I come away from the interview with Dale Vince, it’s hard to know what to make of him, and I find myself humming the 1960s Kinks song above which (with a little lyric readjustment), sums up my impression of him.
He’s a hippie environmentalist campaigner but he owns and runs Stroud-based energy company Ecotricity, set up in 1996 on the back of a windmill he built at the village of Nympsfield close by, which now supplies nearly 90,000 customers and reported a turnover of £65 million up to April 2013. There are pictures of him everywhere reminiscent of the iconic Che Guavara image (still reproduced on T-shirts worn by probably millions of angst-ridden teenagers across the world), so he obviously aligns himself with the South American revolutionary who came to a sticky end in Bolivia, but he lives in a very large house on Rodborough Common with his wife and three children.
He’s a football club owner (of Forest Green Rovers in Stroud) but he’s installed an organic pitch for the team to play on and the club only serves vegetarian food. He’s a petrol head who rides a motorbike, but he also drives an electric car. Oh yes, and he’s a vegan who doesn’t watch TV or own a mobile phone.
Whatever Dale Vince is, or isn’t, he’s having fun, following his beliefs in a way that suits him and offering an alternative energy supply so that the ‘Big Six’ energy companies don’t have it all their own way. He’s providing employment to over 350 people, most based at his three offices across Stroud, and it’s rising, (he’s already taken on an extra 25 people since January and plans for a further 25 in the first few months of the year) and he appears to be the polar opposite of Andrew Harrison, our other CEO interviewee this month, an Oxford-educated science professor. One goes on gut instinct, the other on solid and detailed research and reflection.
“If I’ve done well, I would measure that by the progress we are able to make and the change we are able to bring to things we think are important: energy, transport and food,” he says.
Ecotricity says it operates a unique business model, using customers’ energy bills to fund new sources of green energy. Dale calls it turning ‘bills into mills’ – energy bills into windmills, and all company profits go into that objective. The company will also have received substantial Government subsidies to support its green ambitions.
According to Ecotricity ‘s website: “Electricity is the biggest single source of carbon emissions in Britain – but it’s not the only one. The big three are energy, transport and food: between them accounting for 80% of all of our personal carbon footprints. The one thing they have in common is that energy plays a vital role in them all.” Which is why Ecotricity has branched out from being purely a supplier of wind energy.
His company built Britain’s first electric super car, the Nemesis, to demonstrate how cars could be wind powered. He’s also building a national network of charging stations to support more electric cars on our roads. It doesn’t stop there. He’s developing a sea machine to convert wave power into green energy and a black box, which has a smart grid device to change the way energy is used. Both the sea machine and the black box could, he thinks, be energy game-changers. He also built the first solar energy farm in Lincolnshire which generates million of units of electricity per year and now he’s turning his attention to gas.
“In the last 12 months I reckon we have invested about £1 million in research and development,” he says. “We brought the concept of green gas to Britain and hope to build the first project soon. Using anaerobic digesters you can make methane and the latest technology allows you to ‘scrub it up’ and put it into the gas main where it can replace fossil fuelled gas in the energy mix. We introduced our green gas tariff in 2010 and it was exciting to me as an environmentalist because up until then I thought we could harness the wind, sun and sea but had to wean ourselves off gas. Now I’ve discovered that isn’t the case so we have become a green energy company rather than being a green electricity company and rather than having half the answer, we now have the whole answer.”
But it all began with one windmill on a Cotswold hill at Nympsfield. Almost ten years roaming the highways and byways of Britain as a happy hippy, self reliant and enjoying the peaceful anarchy of doing what he wanted, Dale had become almost totally self reliant. “I had an array of fantastic vehicles which I built and rebuilt and I loved all of that. Towards the end of the 10 years I was experimenting with small windmills. As hippies we saw their power and used to sit around wondering why no one else saw what we saw and saying why don’t they harness this power? We had a few little windmills so finally I just decided to become the ‘they’. I decided that I could either live as a hippy for another ten years with my life being super low impact or I could make more of a difference if I ‘dropped in’ and that became my ambition – to build a big windmill on the hill where as a hippie I’d seen the power of the wind. So I did. I spent my waking hours learning how to build windmills, then when I’d done that, fighting planning battles to get it built.”
That was just the beginning. “The biggest obstacle, apart from planning, was to get a fair price for the energy. So I went to the MEB, the monopoly buyer of energy at that time, and asked them if they wanted to buy some green electricity. They laughed and asked me who would want it, offering me a rubbish price because I couldn’t go to anyone else. So I left that meeting determined to cut out the middleman and get a direct end user fair price.
“I wrote a business plan, literally one side of A4, and sent it off to the regulator by fax machine, receiving a license to supply electricity in return. So then I spent 12 months studying how the electricity system worked and came up with the idea of embedded energy where you match local generators to local customers and stay off the national grid to avoid the toll charges so from day one we could sell green energy on the local grid for the price of brown.
“I am trying to change the world and I have learned a whole different set of skills. Ultimately I want to lead a team of people and if there is something I do most and best then I think it’s that. Along the way I have had to learn a lot of things that I don’t have to do any more. For five years I learned about wind energy to build the first windmill. I had to monitor the wind, to analyse, learn about planning and planning appeals, grid connections and raising finance, then I learned how to construct a windmill and maintain it, writing an operator’s manual in English for the German company.”
That led to the development arm of Ecotricity, where he had to learn about HR, health and safety, IT, finance. “A lot about finance,” he says. “How to build and structure an organisation that grows every year. Nothing stands still. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is that you have to reappraise everything all the time. You have to change, adapt, especially in a fast-growing organisation. And in renewable energy things change fast.”
Is Dale Vince an entrepreneurial businessman? Entrepreneurial I think he would accept, but not businessman. “I am still a campaigner. I am not a businessman – I find it a mildly offensive term. They are not necessarily nice people. I think of myself as a bit of a hippie, environmentalist, campaigner.”
He’s also very opinionated, willing to criticize Governments and others where he thinks there is a case for them to answer. “In the next ten years energy bills could treble again. The day they run out is something you can debate until the cows come home, the fact is they are running out and the price keeps going up. You will see a big debate in the media every autumn about rising energy bills and it all gets blamed on the ‘Bix Six’ but it’s about the rising cost of fossil fuels on the commodity markets. When Cameron rails against the Green Levies, 60% of them came from his Government and most were not green levies – they were social discounts.”
If he feels so strongly – why doesn’t he take them to task head on, by running for Parliament? “I think I can make more of a difference running Ecotricity. We can do things we know are right. Even if I got elected to the Houses of Parliament it would be just Caroline Lucas and I against 600 others.”
Ecotricity is making a difference in its own way. “We began 20 years ago when no-one sold green electricity. We were followed into it by independents, the big six and other companies around the world. I like to think we had a role in that. We had a role in the renewable obligation that the previous Labour government put in place. We’ve talked to energy ministers and taken part in consultations. We’ve taken part in a number of ground-breaking initiatives that our competitors have followed and politicians like the look of. Best of all our work has changed policies.
“Our big message is about building a green Britain,” he says.
In terms of him knowing what the right thing to do it, that’s easy, apparently. “It’s about sustainability. There are very few experts on this in the world and it’s not rocket science, it’s about going out and finding the facts. I am aware that I do come across to some people as arrogant. That’s fine. I am willing to pursue the path that I think is right even if others don’t. That’s a trait. It’s what got me here. Get out there and do it and let other people see it. If it works, other people will follow us.”
A dedicated follow of passion indeed.
This interview by Nicky Godding is from the March 2014 issue of Business & Professional Life.