Ecotricity’s Dale Vince: the highs and lows of a renewables advocate

Leigh Stringer talks to edie and Sustainable Business magazines's 2012 Sustainability Leader, Ecotricity founder Dale Vince, about renewable energy, the Government and why the company is now delving into the realms of wave energy

Dale Vince is a busy man. With a company that has doubled its customer base in three years, a business model that goes far beyond the boundaries of energy production and supply and several big projects in development, it is no wonder that he couldn’t be there in person to collect his award when Sustainable Business and awarded him the 2012 Sustainability Leader Award in December last year.

However, presenting the award in person means edie has the perfect excuse to take up a small amount of his precious time to find out exactly what’s in the pipeline for one of Britain’s greenest entrepreneurs – and of course, to hand over the bespoke trophy that marks him as a Sustainability Leader.

When the award is presented, in what it becomes clear is a typically understated fashion, Vince calmly states that he is “chuffed” and “flattered” to accept the honour. A modest reaction for someone who beat off competition from the likes of John F Brock of Coca Cola Enterprises and Deidre Lingenfelder from Anglo American.

Having dealt with the exchange, it’s straight on to more pressing matters, such as the recent surge in Ecotricity’s customer numbers. In February, the company reached the 70,000 customer mark, doubling in just three years. Vince puts this down to greater awareness of the risks posed by climate change amongst the general public.

“If you look over the last five or 10 years we can see a gradual uptake in consciousness and concern in people. There are more people concerned about the environment and who are more willing to do something about it,” he says.

This clearly pleases Vince who started the company in 1995 with the ambition to change the way electricity was made in Britain. Ecotricity began supplying energy to big businesses, moving onto smaller businesses and eventually supplying at a domestic level. The company has built wind installations for major firms such as Ford, Sainsburys and Prudential, and most recently two turbines commissioned in February for Michelin in Northern Ireland.

“There is a growing interest from big business and SMEs as well. We have about 5,000 small businesses that take energy from us,” Vince says.

Eighteen years and 55 turbines built since its inauguration, the company continues to expand its portfolio of renewable energy projects. Famed for its ‘harnessing energy bills to make windmills’ slogan, it is clear that Ecotricity is helping drive behavioural change amongst those in the UK through the development of renewable energy. But Vince explains that the mission, ultimately, is about sustainability “it just began in energy”.

“We have expanded our mission beyond energy into the realms of transport and food in the last few years, because energy, transport and food, together, account for 80% of everybody’s personal carbon emissions.

“For electricity we are focused on the resources of the wind, sun and the sea. And with green gas it’s currently food waste or some other form of waste. However, it’s a tricky area and you have to be careful what you feed these [AD plants] – we’re still finding our feet”.

Ecotricity’s recent work on food has mainly revolved around providing information and campaigning but Vince says there is also an electric tractor “on the drawing board”.

In terms of transport, Vince talks about Nemesis, an electric car the company launched in 2011 to demonstrate how well an EV can perform. He quickly points out that it set a new UK land speed record for a battery-powered vehicle – 151mph. The creation of the Nemesis led Ecotricity to build the ‘electric highway’, which is a national network of charging posts to encourage the electric car revolution in Britain, “which is surely coming,” he adds.

Despite these new ventures the company is strongly focused on the development of renewable energy and Vince outlines one of the next phases, wave energy generation. “We’ve got our own wave power machine in R&D, called Searaser. Following wind and solar, third in the merit order is wave power. It’s early days and nobody has built a machine that really works and it’s going to be expensive to make power out there.

“The device we’ve got in R&D uses a rather clever approach, which is brutally simple. It doesn’t try to make electricity under the sea or over the sea, it’s a pump and it uses the motion of the waves to pump high pressure water ashore and spin an onshore generator.” Vince says the company will be testing the prototype in the next 12 months.

The enthusiasm in evidence when discussing his latest renewable energy projects quickly diminishes, however, when he moves on to the role of the Government and its position on renewables. The 51-year-old, former new-age traveller is concerned with the lack of support for the renewables industry, citing the Government’s position as “pro-nuclear, pro-gas, pro-fracking”.

“They say they are pro-renewables but they do the complete opposite. There is nothing we can say to politicians such as John Hayes because they are philosophically opposed to renewable energy,” he says.

Vince points out that for renewable energy to see a serious uptake in investment and deployment there needs to be “political will”. He also highlights the recent attention the media and politicians have given renewable energy subsidies, while the “vastly greater subsidies for the fossil fuel industry” have seen little coverage – his comments clearly referring to the £3bn support package for the North Sea oil exploration announced in March 2012.

Another sensitive area is the Energy Market Reform (EMR), which he simply labels “hideous”. According to Vince, the EMR is about enabling nuclear power and gas and will act as another barrier to the uptake of renewable energy.

“This is a Government that came to power, with at least half of it saying there wouldn’t be any subsidies for nuclear power, which is about to become the latest major U-turn – the Government will be providing subsidies for nuclear.

“The EMR is about ‘Contracts for Difference’ primarily to enable nuclear power to be built, it’s a form of subsidy. It will cost three times more per unit of electricity than onshore wind but you won’t see the national newspapers ranting about that.”

However, the Government and its energy policies are doing little to dampen Vince’s optimism and his drive to push renewable energy. So far, 2013 has been a busy year with plans for up to 22 windmills at Heckington Fen in Lincolnshire approved by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in February and final tests have been carried out on its micro wind turbine, known as the Urbine, which could be up to 40% more efficient than similar-sized turbines on the market.

Vince is clearly not waiting for the Government to get on board with renewable energy and at the rate of growth the company has seen over the past few years it may not need to. Vince says that the concept is simple. The company is trying to do as much as it can to use the existing forms of renewable energy that are commercially available like offshore wind but also to bring new forms into use like wave power.

“We want to bring this different way of thinking to the country to change the way energy is made in Britain and to do that through a mixture of introducing technology, using it ourselves and getting people to join us.”

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