Dale Vince on achieving green
Dale Vince has sailed against the wind for most of his life. Now 25 years after starting his own green energy company and a decade into a bold experiment in fusing football, veganism and sustainability, could he finally be steering towards the mainstream?
“Not quite yet, not enough,” says Vince, the Ecotricity owner often referred to as a ‘green energy tycoon’.
“Maybe that day will come. I think the ideas we have been pioneering were sailing against the wind – green energy, electrification of transport and veganism. All of them have become kind of mainstream concepts…but I just don’t think we are doing enough of them quickly enough.
“They are the key to avoiding the climate crisis and becoming a zero-carbon country. I need the wind to blow harder,” he says.
Vince’s journey began in the 1990s with a lightbulb moment about scaling up wind power.
It has taken him from life as an off-grid van-dwelling hippy with his own personal windmill, to providing green electricity and gas to more than 200,000 Ecotricity customers.
It has seen him become chairman of local football club Forest Green Rovers (FGR), converting the catering for both players and fans into plant-based offerings, and turning it into the world’s first UN-certified carbon-neutral football club, with its renewable energy, rainwater-irrigated organic pitch and recently-approved plans for a new wooden stadium surrounded by trees and hedgerows.
And when electric cars were still a “joke idea” back in 2008, his journey led to him take on their ‘boring’ stereotype by building the Nemesis supercar – a modified Lotus Exige – which broke the electric car land speed record in 2012 when it hit 148mph.
A big part of his raison d’être is to bring achievable green solutions to a mass audience.
“With the Nemesis, I wanted a greener car and back then you couldn’t buy an electric car, so we decided to make one. But I immediately thought ‘this mustn’t be a niche. If we’re going to campaign for electric cars they have got to be something everybody can have’,” he says.
The Gloucestershire-based company went on to set up the Electric Highway, a network of more than 300 EV charging stations at UK motorway services which, while it hasn’t been without its issues or critics, remains the main network serving longer-distance EV driving.
Although he already had a head for science and stats, Vince says he had a massive amount to learn when he set about establishing Ecotricity from scratch in 1995 – from understanding wind technology to grid connections, to raising finance or navigating the planning process for the onshore wind farms and solar panels that contribute to generating their 100 per cent renewable electricity.
“It was a lot to learn but great fun, and important,” says Vince.
That same learning process continues, and Vince says he’s excited about new carbon capture technology he hopes to launch in the autumn, and research and development they’ve been doing on a device that is “like a mini version of a modern water treatment system”.
“It’s a small device that could take your house off the water grid, turning all of your drain water back into tap-quality water. I’m excited in terms of making more sustainable houses, but also about its role in the developing world. And in the western world, we’ve got huge national water systems that consume an awful lot of energy and actually we’re running out of water as well. This looks like the missing part of the puzzle.”
Ecotricity is also still working on long-running plans to build gas mills to produce 100 per cent green gas from grass and – in line with new rules – straw. Delays have been partly due to “lack of government support” on creating a level playing field for green gas, according to Vince, but he says they’re close to completing a deal on a site with enough grassland on which they hope work will start this year. Plans to create two new solar parks in England are also in the pipeline for 2020.
We realised we could make a virtue of the situation because football fans were a challenging and important new audience for this kind of message. You’re definitely not preaching to the choir. Now a whole load of fans have gone vegetarian, and have bought solar panels and electric cars. They don’t just tolerate what we have done, they embrace it
As he speaks, the UK is still in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, which has put some plans on hold and has required Ecotricity to shift 700 staff to home-working, not to mention dealing with the demand for electricity, and prices, plummeting.
Covid-19 has also closed down FGR, which is part of the Ecotricity group, but the crisis has brought forward plans to expand the club’s own Little Green Devils vegan food brand – usually only available at matches and events as well as being sold to schools and colleges – into the retail sector.
The earlier decision to take their food into the education sphere is all part of the campaigning strand of Vince’s business, which also includes Ecotricity helping to fund anti-fracking campaigners, pushing for climate policy progress via its ‘2030 Vision manifesto’, partnering with environmental organisations, and backing the stance of Extinction Rebellion by declaring a climate emergency. And while taking over lower-league FGR had never been in the plan, when an initial loan turned into a full-blown rescue Vince said it was natural for them to run the club “using our ethics and principles” and turn it into a campaigning tool.
“We thought we might reach the wider world of sport through this, and it has worked incredibly. I’m now a UN ambassador for the Sport for Climate Action Programme. They are promoting a programme very much like FGR’s to every sports organisation on the planet…I couldn’t have imagined such an outcome.”
Describing himself as a “natural optimist” he says he’s motivated by a combination of “what needs to be done and being encouraged by the progress that we’re able to see”.
But there’s a need to break out of the “business-as-usual mentality” he says, adding that the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic has taught people, including Ecotricity, that rapid and seismic change is doable.
So we need to run our homes on green energy and waste less energy. We need to waste less by not making frivolous journeys, and when we do travel we just need to do it more sustainably, whether by electric car, bike, public transport or whatever. And with food, it’s as simple as not eating animals
“We’ve been able to make drastic changes to the way we live – albeit for a short period of time – and spend vast sums of money on fighting the virus. And yet only a couple of months ago the climate crisis was reckoned by a lot of people to be basically unaffordable and to require lifestyle changes that we couldn’t contemplate,” he says.
“Climate change looks too big and complicated, and we all look too small. I get that. We are too often bewildered by the range of advice – you see things like ‘100 tips to go green’ and just think ‘oh my god, that’s dizzying’.
“What we do is break the issues down into three big areas of life – it’s about how we power our homes, how we travel and what we eat. We all make decisions every day in those areas. That is in our control.
“But we shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Nobody should think that they have to do everything and if they can’t do that, they should do nothing. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to make a start.”