The unconventional rise of Dale Vince
From living in a caravan to helping to build the UK’s green energy sector and owning the world’s first vegan football club.
Dale Vince’s rise in the business world to become chief executive of a renewable energy company is not a conventional one.
Vince, who heads up Ecotricity, is a former new age traveller, and in 2010 he became the majority shareholder at Forest Green Rovers football club.
Business Leader Magazine spoke with Vince about being inspired to create his first windfarm in 1991, the story of founding Ecotricity in 1995; and the trials and tribulations of launching his first wind turbine supplying green electricity in 1996.
What inspired you to go into business in the first place?
I wasn’t really inspired to go into business, I was inspired to drop back in from a life I’d been living off the grid. I wanted to do this to bring about more change and make a difference.
Is your personality that of a leader, somebody who wants to bring about change and make a difference?
I don’t think I’m naturally someone who wants to tell others what to do and organise them, but I’m focused and determined. As a result, Ecotricity has evolved and grown as an organisation of which I am the leader.
I don’t think I ever saw myself naturally as a leader before that. I thought that changing the way electricity was made was a important thing to do as it would help to tackle the single biggest cause of climate change.
This leads into Ecotricity, how did the company start, what was the process?
I lived in a trailer on a hill and spent 10 years living on the road in a variety of different vehicles that I mostly built myself. I’d used small wind power to run my life. I saw the first big windfarm built in Cornwall in 1991 and I was inspired to not carry on the way I’d been living; but to try and build a big windmill.
I set out to learn everything I could about wind energy, which was a new industry at the time. It took five years to build the first windmill, facing an incredible number of obstacles.
Just before I’d built it, I knew I should build some more as it made sense. However, to build them I needed to get a fair price for the energy. To try and do this I went to see the local power company, who were monopoly buyers at that time, and they laughed at the idea of green energy saying it wasn’t available anywhere in the world.
They offered a rubbish price, but the market was just liberalising, so I had the crazy idea of becoming an energy company, cut out the middle man, reach the end user with this entirely new product and so making it possible to build new windmills. This was in 1995.
On April 1 1996 we became the first energy supplier to sell green electricity.
It’s more than 20 years since that date, are you proud to have seen so many changes in green energy?
There have been massive changes. The total amount of renewable energy in Britain in the mid-nineties was around 2% and last year it peaked at just over 25%, so that’s a substantial change. On the back of our entry into the market in 1996 we saw other companies in Britain follow and some other companies in America too – ensuring the principle went around the world.
We also brought green gas to the market in 2010 and that was an entirely new thing. We’ve now got planning permission for our first green gas mill, which will be fed entirely from grass grown on marginal land in Britain.
There have been substantial changes in the transport sector too. For example, we built a car in the early 2000’s, the Nemesis, which still holds the land-speed record. It was built at a time when you couldn’t buy an electric car anywhere in the world. This was pre-Tesla. I wanted a greener car, I couldn’t buy one, so we made it.
The world’s first electrified road that recharges the batteries of cars and trucks driving on it has been opened in Sweden. What are your thoughts on developments like this?
They’ve said it’s much cheaper than a monorail, which is interesting. I don’t know how that compares to charging pumps, which is what we have.
That’s what our idea of an electric highway is about, it’s a national network of about 300 fast chargers on all motorway service stations in Britain from Lands’ End to John O’Groats so that users can charge their electric vehicles anywhere across Britain.
What do you see being the future for the electric highway?
Within 10 years, I believe, you won’t be able to buy any car that’s not electric or hybrid. I don’t think anyone will make conventional petrol or diesel cars in 10 years. I see it as a complete transformation of the sector, whereby, all vehicles on the road, say within 20 years, will be powered by electricity.
I believe, we will all be able to generate power at home to charge our cars as well as run our houses. We’ll also probably have battery storage to take our houses on and off the grid at different parts of the day.
How important is the role of marketing and PR to educate people about this and Ecotricity as a company?
It’s always been important for us, and something we’ve been good at. Not because we’ve trained at it or anything like that, but because we have something to say and we stand for something we believe in.
We’re not afraid to speak out or concerned with who we might clash with, in respect of standing up for what we believe in. We do some innovative stuff which gets the press interested too, for example, Forest Green Rovers, which we took vegan, and got them promoted to League Two.
Our story has gone around the world reaching two billion people through all forms of media. It’s a very different thing to take a football club green and change the menu to vegan, and it’s captured the imagination and attention of a lot of people.
How has it been running a football club? And is it different to running any other business?
I never think of myself as an owner of Ecotricity or Forest Green Rovers, that’s not how I like to see things. But I do run the football club and it’s my privilege to do it. It’s been a very interesting learning curve getting into the world of football, I didn’t like everything I found there, I felt that some elements were quite behind the times.
Forest Green’s story is very influential; has that led you to influence others within the football world?
Yes, and I love it. I think it’s fantastic for us as that’s the type of change we want to bring. We like to do what we believe in, let people see that and hope that they pick some of it up and run with it themselves. That is happening in football.
The biggest question I am asked is – how did I get vegan food into a football club without having a riot? Our influence has spread into the wider world of sport and beyond that. One of our hopes when we began all of this with Forest Green was trying to harness the passion of football fans and point it at the environment as an issue.
What’s the biggest hurdle you have faced in business?
I think it must have been building that first windmill because if I hadn’t done or it failed everything else may not have flowed from there. I was quite conscious during the five-year period of building it, that it had to be done. It had many challenges and at times it felt like mission impossible. At the time, I lived in a trailer and had no knowledge of building, couple that with the fact it was a new industry, and no one thought that it was possible at all.