By Jonathan Guthrie
December 9 2009
It is blowing a gale on top of Lynch Knoll in Gloucestershire. That
makes green entrepreneur Dale Vince very happy. He likes extreme
weather: "Cold, snowing, raining, baking hot - all that stuff."
Most of all he likes wind. The huge wind turbine on top of the hill
is twirling like a kid's pinwheel. It is one of 52 that belong to
Ecotricity , Mr Vince's company, which sells renewable electricity
direct to consumers. The company made a profit of about £2m ($3.3m,
2.2m) in the year to May 2008 on sales of £28m and has been valued at £100m.
Lynch Knoll is where Mr Vince, 48, "dropped back in". He used to live
here in the west of England in a truck trailer - he gestures to a
scrubby area below the crest - in the early 1990s. It was here that
he started harvesting the wind and where his business was born.
Before that, he was a member of the Peace Convoy, a confederation of
anti-authoritarian new age travellers whose traffic-slowing progress
around the south-west of England in live-in buses attracted the
ultimately brutal attentions of the rural police during the 1980s.
Mr Vince, who uses free publicity, including press coverage, to
market Ecotricity, has been pigeon-holed as an "ex-hippy".But that
wrongly implies that his former lifestyle had a Dylan-the-rabbit in
The Magic Roundabout whimsicality to it. In reality, though they were
hippies, Convoy veterans were also tough cookies. They lived without
conventional comforts and in conflict with authority. They were often
angry about their treatment. Mr Vince still is.
During the 1980s, Mr Vince was arrested "many times", he says. He was
at the "Battle of the Beanfield" in 1985 when the localpolice force
prevented the Convoy from holding a festival at Stonehenge. Convoy
members, including pregnant women, were beaten with truncheons and
their vehicles smashed with sledgehammers. It was "an eye-opener"
says the ex-traveller, a tall figure with shaggy hair and an
exotically pierced ear. He says: "Most people think the police are
here to protect us. But when you find yourself on the wrong side of
the system, the police will do whatever they want to you. You are not
even a second-class citizen."
Mr Vince is wrapped up against the mini-hurricane in a Hein Gericke
biker jacket and clumpy boots. Billowing grey clouds race low
overhead. He opens up the tin control shed at the base of the wind
turbine's 40m tower, points to a monitoring panel and smiles. The
wind is blowing at 28mph and generating 500 kilowatts an hour. This,
his first turbine, has clock-ed up 98,000 operating hours. "It
operates for longer in one year than a JCB or truck does in a
lifetime, and should keep going for 30 years," he says.
Toughness aside, new age travellers were often good mechanics. You
had to be if your Bedford van broke down and you could not af-ford a
garage mechanic. Living on Lynch Knoll all those years ago, Mr Vince
fixed up a little windmill and some batteries from a scrapyard to
power some lighting. Then he had "an epiphany . . . I thought that if
I dropped back in and built big windmills, I could bring about more change."
Mr Vince, who left school at 15, began working towards this goal in
1991, when his assets comprised £500 and some welding equipment. It
took five years of wrangling with the National Trust, whose
charitable remit is to protect English landscape, and with
electricity supply companies, which were reluctant to connect him to
the nightingale grid, to put up a big wind turbine on Lynch Knoll. He
financed the enterprise by building and selling wind-monitoring
towers to farmers and generating companies. The following year he
went to the UN climate summit in Kyoto to lobby for wind power.
Mr Vince has since lost faith in summitry, although Ecotricity is
sending a representative to Copenhagen. "Most of us think we need
world leaders to come up with policies at Copenhagen," he says. "I
think that's nonsense." There will be "a people-led revolution", in
which consumers opt for low-carbon products and services.
Ecotricity has just 35,000 residential customers, which makes it a
midget compared with most electricity companies. It had been signing
up 1,000 customers a month, dropping to 300 in the trough of the
recession and rising again recently. Mr Vince expects profits to top
£3m this year. The business model is "brown to green". The idea is
that rising revenues finance the installation of turbines, increasing
the proportion of green electricity in the mixture sold by
Ecotricity. At present, wind energy represents half the total - the
balance comes from energy companies.
Mr Vince, who employs 164 people, usually pays himself about £70,000
a year from Ecotricity's main holding company, a modest sum by the
standards of successful UK entrepreneurs. Records at Companies House
show he has not paid himself dividends in recent years.
How has Mr Vince coped with the transition to company boss? He is
not, he says, "a natural authoritarian" although his eye for detail
can make him an exacting person to work for. His broad aim is to
encourage a "culture of openness and no blame". He says: "We can all
make mistakes. It's important to acknowledge them, recognise how they
started and move on."
Is he never tempted to flog Ecotricity to some wicked multinational
seeking green credentials and trouser the proceeds?
"Why would I?" he asks, puzzled. "To make a lot of money?" I say.
"What would I do with it?" he asks. "Buy a yacht? Live in Monaco?" I
suggest. "What would I do with £100m?" Mr Vince asks, a little
indignantly. "I'd only use it to start a green electricity company,
and I've already got one of those."
The company is his "corporate alter-ego", he says. "It does things I
believe in, and it has a voice, which is great." It enables him to
inform Financial Times readers that: "Business is a sad waste of
life, on the whole, and the free market's an oxymoron."
Mr Vince also has scathing views about the UK planning system. If it
were relaxed, big onshore wind farms could generate half the UK's
electricity, he says. Don't even get him started on nuclear power,
which he dismisses as costly and unsustainable.
As he talks, the "ex" part of Mr Vince's "ex-hippy" tag looks
increasingly suspect. That binary hippy thing of splitting the world
into "conventional = bad" and "alternative = good" is very much alive
in his thinking.
Meanwhile, he is having a lot of fun using his growth business as a
soapbox from which to air his views.
It could all be rather galling for pin-striped toilers who spent
their formative years sweating for qualifications, rather than
meandering round the West Country in an old army truck, but who have
made much less progress with their business careers.