How an 'Off-Grid' Hippie Built a Wind Energy Empire

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Photo: Ecotricity.

Ecotricity CEO Dale Vince is not your average business man.

He's gone from living off-grid on a bus to creating a wind energy empire that made him one of Britain's richest men. He's developed an electric car that broke the U.K.'s electric land speed record. A committed vegan, he bought a soccer club and banned meat from the stadium. And if that wasn't enough, he's invested in wave energy technology; developed new models for direct public investment in renewables; and created a nationwide electric car charging network running off renewables.

You get the idea.

The man likes to get things done. We got in touch for a Q&A; about how all this got started and, more importantly, where it's headed.

Treehugger: How did you get started in the wind power business?

Dale Vince: I have been concerned about sustainability issues since I was young. After leaving school, I wanted to pursue an alternative, low-impact way of life. I spent a decade living off-grid, generating the power I needed through a self-made windmill. That certainly showed me what was possible. We launched Ecotricity in 1996, building our very first windmill in December of that year – on Friday 13th no less. It marked the beginning of the now global green electricity market.

You've taken a somewhat unconventional approach to business — both in terms of branding and communications — and also your business model for developing green energy. Is breaking the mold a necessary part of a transition to clean energy?

We had to break the mold back in 1996 to get Ecotricity’s first windmill in the ground. You couldn’t buy green power [from a utility] in Britain, or anywhere else at that time. As with any industry, traditional approaches and practices stick around for years — sometimes that means those approaches work; a lot of the time, however, it means people simply haven’t come up with anything better.

There are some radical behavioral shifts the public has to make, in terms of the energy they use, the cars they drive, and the food they eat — it’s all part of creating what we like to call Green Britain. What we’re trying to do is to make that transition as easy as possible for people. Often that does mean breaking the mold, whether it’s launching green energy back in the '90s, or installing the first electric car charging network in the U.K. during the last few years.

You can’t just bang on about climate change in the old ways and hope for change though – you need to get the message across in new ways and to new audiences, whether that’s raising sustainability issues with sporting audiences, teaming up with like-minded partners, or raising awareness through high-profile events, such as when we broke the electric land speed record with The Nemesis [video below].

Where do you see the biggest challenges to a truly low carbon future?

We are at a critical moment in our history, with both energy bills and emissions going in the wrong direction. Serious investment in and support for renewable energy is our best option to reverse those trends.

There’s no hiding the fact we need a government in Britain that will foster and support the renewables industry, not throw obstacles in its way. I don’t think we’ve had that with this government. You only have to look at their recent strong support for fracking compared with the government’s mixed messages on renewables to understand what direction we’re currently heading in.

But people power is a strong factor – people do have the power to vote with their energy bills, to demand renewable energy and not settle for anything else.

Your business and political interests range well beyond renewables. From building the Nemesis to investing in tidal power to banning meat at your football club. What connects the dots between your various interests?

It’s all part of our vision for a Green Britain. To get there, we are focusing on three areas in particular: Energy, transport and food. Those three categories make up 80 percent of all personal carbon footprints. Everything we do – whether it’s building windmills, installing the Electric Highway (the charging infrastructure for electric cars in Britain), or taking red meat off the menu at Forest Green Rovers – fits within those three categories.

Dale Vince

Ecotricity has also plowed a different path in terms of economics and financing — preferring crowd funding and customer investment over selling equity to the markets. Can you talk us through the strategy behind this approach?

Our mission at Ecotricity is to change where Britain’s energy comes from.

We want to bring about energy independence and sustainability for Britain, not dependence on the global energy market. In terms of ecobonds, the idea was simple – to accelerate the building process at a time when banks were not quick to lend, to give people the opportunity to share in the financial benefits of green energy without needing to stick anything on their roof, and to cut out the middlemen (the banks) who would’ve charged us the same interest as we’d pay out to the general public. It was also about getting people engaged in green energy, creating an audience with a vested interest in green energy and who would support it.

There are rumors of many new products and initiatives on the market from Ecotricity — from an electric bike to a "black box" storage device. What can you tell us about these projects?

It’s vital to keep pushing the technology and we’re working on quite a few new projects. The Black Box project is progressing – that’s a smart grid device we are working on, all about intelligent demand. We will be conducting some field trials on that within the year.

Elsewhere, we’re currently testing our small-scale vertical axis wind turbine, the Urbine, and the outputs so far look excellent. We also have wavepower device called Searaser, which uses the motion of ocean swells to pump water through an onshore generator – the prototype for that will hopefully be in the water next year. In terms of an electric bike, yes we had worked with Kingston University on an electric race bike, which competed at the Island of Man.

But our main focus in terms of EVs will be an electric tractor and continuing to install electric vehicle charge points across Britain, our Electric Highway. We’ve also got some big wind park projects on the horizon, so there is definitely a lot more to come from Ecotricity.