Dale Vince interview: The £100m hippy with wind in his turbines and Quorn in his burgers
The founder and chief executive of renewable-energy company Ecotricity, says the Government is out of tune with the electorate on green issues
Sunday 06 July 2014
Get off the train at Stroud and the first building on the left is Ecotricity. Walk up to the main street, and the office block on the right is Ecotricity. On the outskirts of town, there is another one for Ecotricity.
In fact, go anywhere in this part of Gloucestershire and it’s impossible to avoid the renewable-energy company.
It’s the largest private-sector employer by far, with 400 staff. That number is growing at the rate of 20 a month – “120 more since Christmas,” says Dale Vince, the firm’s 52-year-old chief executive and founder.
His office is divided from the rest by a simple glass partition. His motorbiking gear is thrown in the corner and on the only wall there’s a Union Jack, except where there should be red, white and blue there are different shades of green.
Vince is tall and powerfully built. He’s got straggly hair, wears black jeans, T-shirt, and an ear-ring.
There are two sides to Vince. There’s the ex-New Age traveller, busted repeatedly by the police for his part in various protests, veteran of the RAF Molesworth occupation against US cruise missiles and the Battle of the Beanfield at Stonehenge. And there’s the sharp entrepreneur, worth at least £100m, who has built a business empire and can mix it with the toughest of corporations.
The two are not incompatible. Plenty of tycoons buy their local football club. Vince has bought his – Forest Green Rovers – except he’s banned its players from eating red meat, and at the ground the kiosks sell only veggie burgers.
I’m seeing him, because he’s taking court action against Tesla, accusing the US electric-car firm of launching a “smash-and-grab raid” on Ecotricity’s intellectual property; because he’s an outspoken critic of fracking; because, simply, I was intrigued. Having met numerous, hugely successful entrepreneurs down the years it’s rare to find someone who sticks so firmly to their hippy roots.
Until 18 May this year, Ecotricity and Tesla were friends. They were working together to develop electric cars in the UK – Ecotricity had built an “electric highway” of battery chargers; Tesla was looking to sell its electric saloon car.
Then, an email meant to be read internally within Tesla was sent to Ecotricity by mistake. It detailed how they were going to encourage motorway service stations to break their contracts with the British company, two executives were flying from the US to blacken the Ecotricity name and persuade its partners to switch to a new network of chargers belonging to Tesla.
Vince saw the email as a “declaration of war” and secured an injunction to block them from proceeding. Since then, they’ve been at each other’s throats.
But when we greet each other, he’s got some news: the dispute has gone to mediation, with both sides keen to avoid a courtroom trial.
“They say they’ve put in a new team, the old team were ‘misaligned’, and now they’re trying to put it right,” says Vince. He appears bemused. “It’s a very strange situation we’ve got ourselves in – we should all be on the same side. We’ve done a lot of work with the electric highway; they’ve done a lot of work with their electric car. We should get on.”
Vince did develop his own electric sports car, the Nemesis.
“It’s a supercar, faster than a Ferrari from 0-100. We built just one as a demonstrator. I wanted to see if we could make a car, and we could. But we don’t see ourselves as a car company. We stopped when we saw the big car manufacturers were starting to get into that space.”
Vince’s business brain told him to focus on what they did best, rather than diversify and struggle to compete with the giants.
“Today, there are 14 models of electric car available in the UK. But what’s often overlooked is where the power comes from. That’s electricity, and that’s what we do, from wind turbines and solar panels.”
While electric cars have been slow to take hold, at some point, says Vince, we will have to embrace them – it’s inevitable.
“There are 30 million cars in Britain, travelling 250 billion miles a year and burning 35 million tonnes of petrol. That’s not sustainable – and it’s going up 12 per cent a year.”
In London, he says, Mayor Boris Johnson’s attempt to create a network of chargers for electric cars across the capital has been a flop.
“There are 1,300 chargers in London, and only 1,300 electric cars sold in the whole of the UK. So that’s one charger per vehicle.”
They’re in the wrong place, he claims. Chargers should not be in town and city centres but either on the motorways or at home.
So far, Vince has installed 60 battery chargers on motorways, at a cost of £50,000 each. His aim is to take that number to 150.
But will it be ages before he sees a return on his investment? He shrugs. “Some things are more important than money.”
It was a similar determination that saw him drive though change at Forest Green Rovers. There was, he admits, a “fans’ revolt” when he barred red meat at the non-league club.
“But I didn’t give in. Now no fan says the veggie burger is worse than a meat burger. They even come up to me and thank me, and say I’ve changed their lives.”
There are some supporters, he claims, who go to watch Forest Green just for the food. As well as being given new diets, each first-teamer was supplied with an electric car (instead of the footballer’s usual preferred sports car).
“Whether any of this improved their performances, it’s hard to say,” says Vince, laughing. “But sports nutritionists do say that red meat slows you down, that it takes two to three days to digest.”
Vince, the son of a road haulier father, left school in his native Norfolk aged 15.
“My parents wanted me to stay and get a steady job, and have a career. But I was a rebel; I had a hard time at school. I found it too dogmatic.”
He was already an environmental campaigner, worrying about sustainability and berating people for throwing things away.
“The day I left school was the happiest day of my life. All my life, as long as I could remember, I’d been at school. Suddenly, I had freedom – it was a wonderful day.”
He became a biker, and worked as a mechanic.
“In my early twenties, I stopped living in towns, and lived on the road.”
He had an ex-army lorry and put a wind turbine on top.
In 1991, he stopped on top of a hill in Stroud. He saw the blades of his turbine spinning and had a revelation as to what wind power could really do.
“I went off to Cornwall to look at the first wind farm.”
He decided to try and construct his own industrial wind turbine. It went up in Stroud, in 1996. Today, Ecotricity has 60 turbines around the country, and 125,000 customers.
“We’re right in the mix. Everyone else in the industry is talking about energy independence. We’re already there.”
His mantra is “bills to mills” – harnessing revenues to build more turbines, until they’re all over the country.
“The more energy we can produce, the more competitive we can be.”
He can freeze his prices, since, as he points out: “Fossil fuels will only go up as they run out, but wind stays the same.”
What infuriates him is the Government.
“David Cameron has been overheard referring to all this ‘green crap’. Their policy is to end onshore wind. But for the last three years, the Treasury has been against renewable energy, full stop – whether it’s onshore, offshore or solar. We’ve started to see companies go out of business.”
Where’s the argument been lost?
“Ideology. Big business is into nuclear and fossil-fuel power stations. Renewable companies are small. It’s all about big business.”
Planning successes for wind turbines have been “cut in half under this government. It’s the least-green government I’ve ever seen and unashamedly so”.
Look at fracking, he says.
“Two-thirds of the country support wind energy; two-thirds say they don’t want fracking. Yet we’ve created the lowest tax regime in the world for fracking, and we’ve changed the law of trespass so fracking can take place under your house.
“The blip is the Government. They’re out of tune with the electorate. I hope to God they don’t get re-elected.”
He says Ecotricity won’t do business activities that are unethical.
“Our over-riding ethos is that we’re mission-led; there has to be a positive environmental outcome in what we do.”
Don’t be fooled, though. “We’re not a not-for-profit organisation.”
He’s appeared on The Sunday Times Rich List.
“Most people in the country judge success by how much money you’ve made, so if my success gives renewable energy credibility, then that’s great.”
He claims not to have changed. “In the early ‘90s, I was this slightly crazy, hippy bloke. I still am.”
But clearly, not as crazy as all that.
Dale Vince: The CV
Born: 29 August, 1961, in Norfolk
Career: left school at 15, New Age traveller, built a windmill and founded Ecotricity
Family: first married in 1981, later divorced, one son – his ex-wife later sued him after he made his fortune, and lost; married again, one son
Lives: in a £3m, 18th-century fort outside Stroud
Owns: Forest Green Rovers FC; as well as banning players from eating red meat and sale of red meat at the ground, installed world’s first organic football pitch which is cut by a solar-powered lawn mower
Protester: at numerous demos but notably Molesworth in 1982-83, and the Battle in the Beanfield at Stonehenge in 1985.
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