Ecotricity founder Dale Vince on building a bright, green future
NB – This article was first published in Issue #2 of Omnom Magazine
From living off-grid in a windmill-powered trailer to creating the UK’s first green energy company and chairing the world’s first vegan football club, Dale Vince has been – and continues to be – at the forefront of the green revolution.
When I meet Ecotricity’s founder, Dale Vince, he’s working at the standing desk in his office next to a table-top model of the architectural design for Forest Green Rovers’ new eco-friendly stadium. On first appearances, he comes across as your typical serial entrepreneur in the Richard Branson mould; once he starts talking, however, it becomes clear that he is far from your usual businessman. Dale’s – and Ecotricity’s – story begins in the early 1990s after he spent most of the previous decade living self-sufficiently off the grid:
“In 1991 I was using a windmill to power my trailer and living on a hill outside of Stroud,” he recalls. “When the first wind farm in Britain was built in Cornwall I went down to see it. I thought, I could spend another ten years living off-grid and make a personal difference, or I could drop back in, try and build a big windmill and change things a bit.
“If you can imagine ten years living off-grid: I was at the Battle of the Beanfield the miners’ strikes, facing police brutality, living from one site to another – a little windmill, that was my life. Then I had this rather crazy idea that I could build a big windmill. I knew nothing about wind energy: I had no money, no training. The industry was brand new anyway, so finding information was very difficult. As you can imagine, my horizon was just, build that windmill.”
That first windmill took Dale five years to get right. In 1995 – not long before the windmill was finally completed – he went to see a local power company to talk to them about selling a completely new form of electricity via the National Grid.
“Nobody had sold it before then. The market was just opening up and there was a chance to get a supply licence and become an electricity company. I wanted to reach the end user and get a fair price, then build more windmills. That was the pitch.”
Ecotricity’s first windmill was completed in December 1996 and, less than a year later, Dale found himself at the Kyoto Summit lobbying for a greater use of wind energy generation.
“It was the climate summit where the first agreement was reached for a 1% reduction [in greenhouse gases]. Everybody said that it wasn’t much, but it was important that there was an agreement,” he says. “We’ve come a long way since then. “Funnily enough, I went to COP23 this year in Bonn at the request of the UN to talk about Forest Green and the role of sport in fighting climate change. So it’s all come full circle.”
Writing a blueprint for success
Ecotricity was the first company in the world to sell green energy on this scale, which meant the company largely had to forge its own path to success. While it has certainly grown hugely over the years (it’s now involved in several diverse activities from electric car charging points to green gas mills) business isn’t a means to an end: the end is environmental.
“I don’t focus like a businessperson would; I focus like an environmentalist would,” Dale explains. “Sometimes I describe Ecotricity as a hybrid: we’re mission-led like an NGO (non-governmental organisation), but we use the best business tools available to get stuff done. NGOs don’t tend to do that – not enough, anyway.”
Levelling the playing field
It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Ecotricity. A solar park built in 2010 had to close down after the Government abandoned its feed-in tariff scheme for supporting private energy generation. More recently, an application for a solar park in Oxfordshire – which would have generated almost 10MW of solar power – was rejected on appeal, on the grounds that it would ‘detract from unspoilt open farmland’.
Dale is vociferous in his criticisms of what he perceives as an uneven playing field between green energy providers and their mainstream competitors.
“In terms of subsidies or financial support, fossil fuels receive around £1,000 per household per year; renewable energy gets about £150 per household per year,” he suggests. “Despite that, if we’re talking about new-build housing then onshore wind is the cheapest form of energy that we can make.
“When you build a new form of energy to compete with something that’s already been built then it’s a different equation, because of capital costs. Fossil fuels are relatively light on capital cost but high on running costs; with renewable energy, it’s the other way around. So there’s a difficult balance – but renewable energy is there or thereabouts.
“Onshore wind in Britain is now possible without any subsidies; in ten years, solar will be on the Grid at half today’s price, which will upend the market. The days of fossil fuels are well and truly numbered, despite the support they get from Government.”
Green energy has had wavering support over the past couple of decades, as successive governments put in place and then rolled back several subsidies and schemes that are meant to support the growth of green alternatives to coal and gas.
“It’s a Conservative thing: you have to call it what it is,” believes Dale. “Under Blair and Brown there was a big push for renewable energy and we made a lot of progress. Cameron then got elected promising to be the ‘greenest Prime Minister ever’ but, by the end of his first term, he was calling this stuff ‘green crap’.
“He rolled back all forms of financial support for renewable energy. He went so far as to actually impose a tax: he didn’t just cut back to nothing, he imposed a carbon tax on green energy. He put successive planning barriers in the way so that, even if you were able to build turbines without a subsidy and pay the carbon tax, you still couldn’t because of planning obstacles – which is bonkers.”
From Ecotricity to Ecogas
One of the fairest criticisms levelled against green energy generation has been that, at least until recently, only electricity was achievable using renewable resources. When Ecotricity discovered green gas was being made in the Netherlands, however, this changed the game completely.
“This was a revelation, as I felt that we had half the answer as environmentalists up until then,” Dale admits. “We knew where electricity was going to come from but we didn’t have an answer for gas apart from weaning ourselves off it.
“So we set about looking for ways to make it [green gas] in Britain. Typically it could be made using animal waste from intensive farming, which we abhor in principal and won’t get involved in, or food waste – which is okay but not ideal – because there are better things to do with food like, firstly, not waste it.”
Instead, a novel approach has been taken – to make renewable gas from grass crops. After conducting feasibility studies, Ecotricity arrived at the conclusion that, without competing with food crops for humans, there is enough available land to make ‘green gas’ to power all of Britain’s homes. Ecotricity is currently planning to build its first 5,000-acre green gas mill at Sparsholt College in Hampshire.
“The land used to grow grass – cropped twice a year – becomes an organic wildlife haven,” asserts Dale. “If we did it on a national scale it would be something like £7bn or £8bn of savings per year and an unprecedented amount of land turned over to nature.
“It’s climate-neutral and takes one acre of land to create enough gas to power a home for a year. If you make green gas on marginal farmlands that are grazing animals, you give the land back to nature, you cut the impact of our diets and you help farmers make the transition from farming animals because growing grass for gas is a viable alternative to growing it for cows.”
Storage solutions The UK now generates green energy at historic levels, at times providing more than half of its overall energy from renewable sources. However, the fundamental problem with renewable energy – that it relies on the whims of certain weather conditions – remains. Thanks to new battery technologies, however, this might all be about to change and Ecotricity want to be at the forefront of this.
“It’s a big opportunity because, up until very recently, energy storage was almost impossible,” admits Dale. “The big pick-up in electric cars and the focus of all the major manufacturers has led to a huge demand for batteries. Advances in this area are pushing down costs and driving up performance to such an extent that battery storage at Grid-scale works today.”
The rapid pace of development in this area has allowed Ecotricity to make plans for three large-scale battery storage projects for 2018, while it is also working on a home storage device that Dale hopes will enable greater penetration of renewable energy onto the Grid.
“We modelled the entire National Grid – we like to do things like that – and we played some games with it, asking questions like, What if we had 1-2 kilowatts of battery storage in every house in the country?” explains Dale. “We found that we could reduce required power station capacity by 15%: houses would drop off the Grid for a couple of hours each day and then come back on at the right time. As you know, the National Grid has these big peaks and troughs, so it’s about fighting those peaks with a bit of intelligent demand.”
Turning the Football League green
Aside from Ecotricity’s core activities, the company has also been involved in several other projects, including building green supercars and introducing electric car charging points to Britain’s motorways. Perhaps Dale’s most unexpected business move, however, was the decision to invest in local football team Forest Green Rovers after the club hit financial difficulties
in 2010. Fast forward seven years and the village side – of which Dale is now chairman – have become the smallest team ever to reach the Football League, as well as ‘the greenest football club on the planet’, according to FIFA.
“Owning a football club was never on my list, but I’m having a great time,” says Dale. “We won promotion at Wembley, which was an amazing experience and one aspect of it that really surprised me was the reach of our story. We were on TV in Azerbaijan, China, New Zealand and Norway, just for winning at Wembley. We were on the 10 o’clock news in the news section and Chelsea were in the sports section!
“We’re a 128-year-old football club, we’ve never been in the league, we’re the smallest in the league. All of those things are interesting but, of course, being vegan was the thing that did it. We had around 30 media organisations turn up to our first dozen games, whereas we used to have about three or four, so we just didn’t have room for them.
The interest was enough that the UN contacted Dale, asking him to speak at COP23 in Bonn about putting sustainability at the heart of a sporting organisation. “They were planning a programme of work to see if we can harness sports in the fight against climate change,” explains Dale. “I spoke to a room full of global sporting bodies and sporting clubs – the San Francisco 49ers, FIFA, the Japanese FA, Formula E, people like that – about how you take a sports club and talk to the fans about the environment.”
Vegan pies and vegan pints
One of the first things that Dale implemented upon taking over the club was to remove red meat from the menus. Since then the club has gone fully vegan and even has an organic pitch that is maintained without the use of chemicals. Yet this move has had its fair share of detractors.
“I never dreamt of running a football club and never could have dreamt of the impact that we could have by saving our local football club and repurposing it, putting environment into its DNA,” Dale explains. “At the same time, when you do something and you offer a green alternative, you have to be great at it. So you have to be good at football – we can’t be crap, because people will say, Some vegan football club…
“We also go out of our way to make great food. If we’re producing a green alternative to something then it has to be really good. So when we make a car, it is a supercar. When we have an organic football pitch, it’s a great pitch. When we make food, it has to be fantastic, otherwise people are looking for that Yes, but…
“When it comes to the football club, all the away fans know that we’re vegan so they come with preconceptions but they try the food and they love it. Because football food is generally rubbish, isn’t it? The bar was low – yet our food is award-winning, which is fabulous.”
Although only vegan food is served at the ground and training facilities, the players themselves are not forced to be vegan; instead, the new management at Forest Green took a performance angle with them when it came to diet.
“We said to them, Top athletes don’t eat red meat – that’s just not going to help you,” states Dale. “Our players are athletes: they’re ambitious and want to move on in their careers, so they look for any little edge they can get in training. We employ the latest techniques, sports science and medicine, so bringing nutrition into the discussion was really easy – they were totally open to it.
“Dale Bennett just did it [went vegan] off his own back. We never push people, we just show by giving. So we put on the food, we grow the pitch and we say, well there it is. What other people do is up to them.”
Having achieved a long-held club ambition to get into the Football League, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Forest Green might want to consolidate and sit on its laurels. But Dale has other ideas.
“Our plan is to get into the Championship,” he admits. “When we made that first step at Wembley in May, we were like, Yeah, one down and two to go, promotion-wise. The start of our season in League Two was a bit of a wake-up call – the quality was better than we perhaps expected. It’s a close league points-wise, and we took a little time to find our feet.
“I think we’re going to be fine, but our eyes are up the table; League One is the next step for us. The higher up the leagues of football we go, the bigger the platform for our message and the more impactful it becomes. To be a properly green football club in the Championship would be amazing.”