When the UK’s environment agency put together a list of top-100 eco-heroes, Dale Vince was included in that list, alongside Rachel Carson, Al Gore and St Francis of Assissi. Dale is founder and managing director of Ecotricity, the UK’s leading supplier of green energy. Prior to starting Ecotricity, he also founded NexGen, a manufacturer of wind monitoring equipment, and spent ten years living a low-impact lifestyle as a ‘new-age traveler’. He is a vegan, and continues to experiment with green energy and low-impact living at home. We have reported on Ecotricity countless times before, including here and here. Most recently we featured the company’s announcement that it will be building wind turbines to power the offices and manufacturing facilities of the Lotus car company, and its partnership with Ben and Jerry’s to promote green energy to consumers. We thought it was high-time that we brought you the inside scoop on this forward thinking and innovative company, so we got in touch with Mr Vince, and asked him how the company came about, how the UK’s liberalized energy markets have helped drive renewables, and why Ecotricity has been so critical of other green energy suppliers. We also discussed Ecotricity’s focus on urban and industrial wind energy developments, and what everyone of us can do to take part in the clean energy transition.
Update: Dale Vince has today been named 'most inspiring business leader' in an online poll conducted by the New Statesman. Vince won with an overwhelming 60% of the vote, beating the Body Shop's Anita Roddick, Virgin's Richard Branson, chef Gordon Ramsay and Hazel Blears MP.
TreeHugger: How did Ecotricity come about? What drove you to start developing renewable energy sollutions?
Dale Vince: Ecotricity came about from a desire to bring about significant change and through the need to get a fair price for wind energy in order to be able to build more of it - in the mid 90's. I dropped in from my low impact travelling lifestyle (of ten years) in the early 90's with the aim of building a large scale wind turbine on the hill I was parked up on outside Stroud. The basic driver was to be able to have a more positive impact through this work and achieve more than through my own personal low impact life. By the mid 90's it was clear that one fundamental obstacle to building wind energy was getting a fair price for the power - our power companies were monopolies back then and behaved like it. At the same time the market was liberalising and so following an abortive meeting with our local monopoly the idea was born to cut out the middleman and become a green electricity company. Ecotricity was born and in the process the world's first green electricity supplier - consumers for the first time were offered the ability to buy a different kind of power - the green kind. That was 1995. The basic driver I had/have is concern for the unsustainable way we all live and the impact this has on the environment.
TH: The privatization of the UK grid has lead to intense competition between electricity companies, and not just on price. How important is this competition in developing renewable energy, and other clean technologies?
DV: Liberalisation (of the UK electricity market), which followed privatization, has been essential to the development of renewables in the UK. It allowed competition and thus innovation in electricity supply, which enabled the differentiation of fuel source for the first time. When we offered green electricity into the UK market in 1995, it was the first time anywhere in the world that that choice was made possible to end users. Since then green electricity companies and offerings from conventional companies, have sprung up all over the world.
TH: Ecotricity has been quite scathing about its competitors in the 'green' energy market, arguing that many only buy green energy from existing facillities, rather than building more capacity. Surely by buying power from clean sources at a premium, these companies create increased demand for green energy, which will eventually lead to increased supply?
DV: The theory as you set it out here is fine, in theory. In practice its much harder to see it happening, and almost impossible to measure. But the issue we have is not that. Many companies have set up to sell green energy and they do so on the premise that by buying it consumers can reduce their carbon emissions - its marketing led and not fully honest. What's been happening is that companies have been buying up sources of green energy to bundle into 100% tariffs, in the process taking that green power from the current user to sell it to a new one. Before liberalisation we all had about 3% renewables in our fuel mix (in the UK) - following liberalisation and the rash of 100% tariffs - we now all typically have 0% in our fuel mix and a few people have 100%. So its a redistribution of green and of carbon. Our issue is that 100% tariffs are not what they seem, they promise carbon reductions but do so at the cost of putting someone else's up - typically there is not net reduction in emissions or increase in renewables. The green power used is often between 15 and 50 years old - its been around a long time. We describe this situation as one of Old Green Versus New Green. The issue for consumers to be aware of in our opinion is not the overall % of green in a tariff as such - it is the % of New green as opposed Old green.
We cannot all switch to 100% green overnight, it has to be built. Honest tariffs, in our opinion, acknowledge this and are dedicated to new build, not old redistribution.
To come back to your point - yes buying 100% Old green tariffs may make a difference to demand and cause someone to build one day - but on its best case its a poor second best, in terms of what it achieves - to taking direct responsibility and building something yourself. And given that these Old green tariffs actually have a premium attached - it costs consumers more to do less - it really is a con. That's why we're scathing I guess..
TH: Many of your projects are in highly visible, industrialized or urban locations, rather than on remote hillsides. Does this avoid the NIMBY element?
DV: Yes absolutely, well not completely, we hear the odd objection - but they seem to have no impact.
TH: Is there also a symbolic aspect, namely that the more people see green technologies, the more aware they will be of the options that are out there?
DV: Absolutely, and to a large extent that's why we do it. And it’s working. People see windmills for the first time and they say things like ' oh that's a windmill, what's the fuss all about...let's have some more'
TH: Can renewable energy power the world, and if so, how do we realize this potential? How important is conservation and energy efficiency in this equation?
DV: Yes it can and it must, fossil fuels have their days numbered - there's nothing else in the ground to replace them with and even if there were we can't afford the carbon emissions that would bring. In the future renewables will be all we have - even uranium is a finite power source - its just a matter of how far forward you look, and how prepared we are - it may be 'kicking or screaming' (in the case of Bush and co) but our futures will be renewable powered - just as our past has been.
Conservation of energy and efficiency measures are 'the other side of the coin' essential in the move to a more sustainable life - we could probably reduce by 50% the average amount of energy that houses use - and this would halve the number of windmills or other sources need to provide power. Essential.
TH: What are the most important things that every TreeHugger can do to help ease the transition to a better, greener world?
DV: Use less power, make your own where you can and buy green from a company committed to new build, for the rest. We have to build like there's no tomorrow.