Many corporations, focused on the relentless pursuit of profits, make their money at the expense of the people, and the planet. The only proper purpose of any business is to serve the society in which it operates, and to contribute to the protection of the planet we all depend on for our existence. Ecotricity, founded by Dale Vince, is almost unique amongst UK energy companies in aiming to do just that. Although it makes money, that is only a means to achieve its main aim, environmental protection. Its main method of environmental protection is by supplying and developing renewable energy in the UK.
Ecotricity is a not-for-dividend company that on average spends more per customer each year on new sources of green energy than any other energy company in Britain. In addition to supplying 100% green electricity, and green gas, it has installed EV fast-chargers at every motorway service area in Britain, on its Electric Highway network. The Electric Highway was started in 2011, and the company has been instrumental in the expansion of EV use in the UK since then.
Dale Vince, the founder and Managing Director of Ecotricity, gave us this interview on 16th November 2017, and I am very pleased to present it in full here.
Me (Andy Miles):
Hi Dale. It is great to be invited to do an interview with you, as you are something of a hero in the cleantech world. Zach Shahan, the director and editor of CleanTechnica, has asked me to extend the thanks of all in that organisation for all that you have done. I can certainly second that, as I have been able to move to an electric vehicle only because of the Ecotricity charging network. Also, it is great to be able to buy 100% renewable electricity, and gas, and to know that the money from my bills is being used to provide even more renewable energy systems.
Me (re: first paying customers):
Many people might have the desire and the idea of starting a renewable energy company, but it is another matter to make that a reality. When you started out, did you have any idea of the difficulties and obstacles that might be in your way? How did you succeed in obtaining financial backing?
Yeah — I had no idea what it was going to take, but then it was an entirely new industry. My beginning was to try to build a big windmill on the hill I was living on. It was just at the start of the wind industry in Britain, in 1991. I’d seen the first wind farm built in Cornwall. I knew about little windmills, and I thought, I had got back in, because I had been 10 years living off-grid, and having got back in, would try to build a big windmill. I didn’t really even think it might be difficult, or something like that, but just thought that that is what I should do.
Then, I decided to learn everything about grid energy — technology, planning, grid, finance, and that kind of stuff. It took five years to build the first one, and by the time I’d done it, I’d learned everything. Not wanting to sound as if I’m blowing my own trumpet, but I had learned every step of the process, and that became a blueprint for Ecotricity, and the things we did next.
And the money? Really, I had none, at the start. It was very fortunate that the first thing I needed was a wind monitoring tower. I didn’t have the money to buy one, but I had the means to build one, because from when I was a traveller, I had accumulated trucks, welding equipment, metal cutters, and all sorts of stuff. I even had a crane. So, I made a tower; put my own one up. But then a farmer in Swindon wanted one, and then someone in Bristol wanted one, and then Scottish Power wanted a whole series of them. It became a business, and it paid for the next steps in my project.
So, I could start off by getting the mast up, and then I needed to get a planning application. The mast, by the way, was to collect wind data, which I needed for the business plan, and then it was back to negotiating a grid connection, and all sorts of other stuff. Along the way, the mast business grew and paid for everything.
I was ready to build the windmill. I had made enough money from the mast business to put down a deposit of 20% on that first windmill, which I built myself; well, not exactly built, but project managed the whole thing, and therefore, learnt all about the construction process, the whole scheme, right down to the foundation.
Me (re: first paying customers):
Right — so it was very “hands-on” to start with. How did you arrive at the point where you were able to provide energy to your first paying customer, the Cheltenham and Gloucester College, in 1996?
The next part of the journey really. In 1995, I could see that I wasn’t ready to build the windmill — that was to come in 1996 — so, I went to see the power company, the MEB (Midlands Electricity Board). They were the monopoly buyers at the time. That was before the industry was liberalised.
What I thought was, this first one was going to get built, but to build more I really needed to get a fair price for the power, so I went to the MEB and asked them the questions, and they laughed at the idea of green electricity, and they said, ‘Who wants it? Who is going to pay for it?’ They mentioned a really rubbish price, ‘and this is what we’ll pay you.’ I left that meeting thinking that the best thing I can do is to become an energy company. But, again, like building the windmill, I didn’t think how difficult it was going to be, but just thought it was what needed to be done. As I’ve said often in the recent past, if I knew how hard it would be, I might not have done it (he laughs) — it’s been a bit of a journey.
But it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done; the most exciting [and] the most impactful thing at the same time.
So, I applied to OFGEM (Office of Gas and Electricity Markets) for a supply license, just to prove the market to people, around 1995. I just filled in a two- or three-sided paper form and faxed it to OFGEM. It was that easy to get a licence — no systems required, no money in the bank, or anything. So, we started then and it was later, in 1996, that we first supplied Cheltenham and Gloucester College. We did it from a local landfill site. We pioneered this concept of local energy supply and that also became possible on that day. Under new grid rules, you were able to set up generation and demand within the same network district. So, yeah, all that kicked off on 1st April 1996.
Me (re: embedded supply model):
How did your company develop between there and 2003 using your “Embedded Supply” model, providing power directly to large businesses using on-site installations? Any memorable moments?
We began to supply energy to businesses, first, and built up quite a few of those. I think one of our biggest breaks came in 1997, maybe ‘98, when we did a deal with Thames Water. It was just monstrous. We went from almost nothing to a £50 million turnover in one year, and we were buying power for them in the wholesale market, and they were massive users of electricity. That went on for a couple of years, before it went pear shaped.
Then, we built a series of projects, which were merchant wind farm projects for industrial users. The first one, I think, was in 2000, for Sainsbury’s, and that was kind of a new model that we had come up with, whereby, if you build generation, deeply embedded on the customer’s side of the meter, you avoid transmission and distribution losses and costs, and it’s a much more economical way to supply. Industrial sites don’t tend to be the windiest, but those economics have been deeply embedded to offset that and we’ve made it work.
So, we built one for Sainsbury’s, and then we went on to build one for Ford. They liked it so much, I think we’ve got three for Ford now supplying a diesel engine factory at Dagenham. We built one for B&Q, Prudential, two sites for Michelin in Northern Ireland, and these days, it has become quite a popular concept. These days, people call it the PPA (Power Purchase Agreement) model. Typically, these are off-site — what we call “off-site merchant wind farms.” We did one of those for the Co-op bank in 2005 where we built the wind-farm on one side of the country and powered their offices in Manchester.
Me (re: domestic supply):
In 2003, you started supplying electricity through the grid to individual householders, starting with 3,156 homes. That was really a whole new venture. Can you tell me about how that started, and the kind of additional organisation you had to set up to make that work?
It’s a much more complicated business supplying homes. When you’re supplying businesses, they have a half-hour metering system, and everything, including the shape (pattern) of their (electricity) demands are actual, and it’s kind of a simpler model. When supplying domestic customers, you’ve got to force a shape; people have profiles for their consumption. The meter doesn’t measure at half an hour, which is the resolution point of the British electrical system, so you take a reading and force it into a shape. I know that sounds a bit complicated, but that’s what supplying domestic customers is. It’s a very complicated business, but we have always wanted to do it, and so we went into it in 2003 and we’ve never looked back.
Me (re: customer services):
Yes, you have many more customers now, and I am one of them. When customers vote for best customer services from energy suppliers, Ecotricity always seems to come at or near the top. What gives Ecotricity “the edge” with that?
I think it’s fundamentally about our approach. A lot of businesses, not just in energy, see customer service as something that they have to get through, you know, to provide a bare minimum service, to tick a box, and move on. We look at it completely differently from that. We deliver customer service according to our own ethos; the one that we have as a company, that guides the way we work, the way we treat each other, and the way we treat our customers, both business, and domestic. At the heart of it is simply treating other people the way we would like to be treated ourselves. When that comes to customer service, that means answering the phone, not having it done by recorded messages, not having an option of numbers to press depending on what your issue is, but answering the phone ourselves, sorting things out, keeping our promises, and basic human decency stuff. Our aim is to provide very good customer service, not just to get past the customer service need as many other businesses do.
Me (re: future plans):
Things have gone from strength to strength since you started, with more embedded supply contracts and by 2015 supplying nearly 90,000 homes with green energy. Ecotricity is now a well-established force in the UK energy market. It has been a huge success. Do you still have big ideas for the future, and do you intend to diversify into energy sources other than wind, such as solar farms?
Yeah, we’ve built a solar farm: we built the first one in 2010, just before the Conservative government closed it down as an industry with a future. But that’s coming back: the price of solar panels has fallen so quickly since then that we can see the day coming soon when we can recommence our solar programme.
We’ve got some interests in wave power and tidal power. These are R&D projects at the moment. We’ve got green gas — we unveiled a concept recently to make gas in England from grass. We published a paper that showed that, maximising land use in Britain, we could produce enough gas for just about all of Britain’s homes from green gas, which is carbon neutral, which creates massive wildlife habitats, and [which] won’t compete with food production. It would create 100,000 jobs and be of massive economic benefit to this country.
We are just getting into grid-scale energy storage and have planning permission today for 10 MW, our first big project. And we have home-scale energy storage with our “Black Box,” which has been in R&D for a while and should be in the world in the first quarter of next year, and that’s quite exciting.
We have a water device coming out of our labs next year which recycles all our household wastewater — from rain, drains, and even toilets — and turns it into better-than-tap-quality drinking water, which is quite exciting. We have various other applications in development.
And yes, have we got any big ideas? Yes, our electric car and electric van projects, which are going really well, on the cusp of mad growth because the sector is that way. We are just launching a UK mobile phone service called Eco-talk this year. That’s a carbon-free mobile service, piggy-backing on one of the big networks, harnessing our customer phone bills and using them for buying land to create habitats for nature. And then, one more top-secret project that will be announced next summer, which for me is probably the most incredible and crazy idea we’ve ever come up with.
Me (re: Ecotricity Electric Highway charging network):
Top secret? Sounds intriguing. I’ve just signed up to the phone service: I was just waiting for the contract to end with the previous supplier. Now, one thing you’ve not mentioned is the Ecotricity Electric Highway charging network. I am especially interested in that, because I have been running an electric vehicle for a couple of years now and the network has been a great boon to me, allowing me to travel to many different places with very reliable Ecotricity fast-charging points all along the way. This started in 2011, long before most other networks in this country, or any other, and most definitely paved the way for electric vehicles to be a viable form of transport in the UK.
Can you tell me anything about how the idea came about, how it was practically implemented, and the role of any other organisations in providing money, expertise, or equipment — and the actual car-park sites — for the Ecotricity chargers?
In 2008 I wanted a green car, but I couldn’t find an electric car anywhere in the world. This is pre-Tesla. Nobody made one, so we decided to make one. And we thought we had better make it a really great car because, you know, our approach to previous stuff is, if you’re making an alternative to conventional anything — food, football pitch, car, you name it — it’s got to be great. So, we decided to make it a supercar, a one-off, which still holds the land speed record. (On 27 September 2012, the Nemesis recorded a top speed of 243 km/h (151 mph) at Elvington Airfield in North Yorkshire, a feat that broke the land speed record for EVs in the UK. The previous record was 220 km/h (137 mph).)
It looked really good and it has great performance as well. It was on the road in 2010, and the experience of having that on the road led us to see that the infrastructure was the missing piece of the jigsaw. It was a bit of a chicken and egg thing going on. People were not going to buy an electric car unless people built somewhere to charge, and vice versa. We could see that all the big manufacturers were talking about it, and so we thought we needed to focus more now on the infrastructure. Our analysis was that the motorways were the place where chargers were needed the most and first, so we got in contact with all the motorway operators and agreed contracts with them to start installing electricity pumps on their forecourts.
And our first ones were just three-pin plugs, and we knew it wasn’t practical — we were honest about that — but it was better than nothing for anybody who did have an electric car, and not many people did. We knew that the technology would change, and within two years we were building 50 kW fast chargers that would charge a Nissan LEAF in 20 to 30 mins. Next year, we’ll be building 350 kW chargers, which will charge up a 300-mile range car in 15 mins. This is just an incredible rate of progress in the car industry, and the charging industry.
So, that’s where the idea was brought from, to help kickstart the revolution for EVs. That was always in our minds when we built the Nemesis. We wanted to show what it would be looking like to drive a car in a world without oil. That led us to the infrastructure of our Electric Highway. So, we’ve been helped in this by our landlords, the motorway services operators, but more than anybody else by Nissan, who stumped up an awful lot of hardware for us to build this network, because they could see that it was going to help people to buy cars, and it is probably no coincidence that the Nissan LEAF is the top-selling electric car in Britain.
Me (re: user-friendly chargers):
I find the chargers reasonably easy to use, but it seems a common thing for all chargers to require a card or smartphone app to use them. Why can’t an electricity pump work in the exact same way as a fuel pump, where you just put your credit card in the slot, fill up, and that’s all there is to it?
That would be the ideal, and we absolutely aspire to it. I think that all that has happened is, the technology wasn’t there at the time, in 2011, and when fast chargers came, they weren’t enabled for that kind of operation. It was still very much a niche industry, and we can see now that all of the car companies in the world are planning not just to have EVs and hybrids, but most of them are planning when to stop having internal combustion engines, you know, planning a total transformation. That is leading to much more sophisticated hardware becoming available to us next year, and we will have, I think, contactless card payments for charging, app free and membership card free, in summer next year.
Me (re: future of the Ecotricity charging network):
Right, well that is great news, and to some extent answered the question I was going to ask next — if you have any big plans for the future of the Ecotricity charging network?
We don’t really. We want to keep pace. We’ve done the motorways, done some A-roads, and we’ve done some ports and airports. We are doing some garages around London next year, but a slightly different model. With these big fast-chargers, the aim they make possible is to make an electric car analogous to the way most people use internal combustion engine cars in terms of refuelling. Most people go to the garage once a fortnight, spend 5 minutes filling up their car, and then drive away. This should be possible for EVs, with the new technology. So, we will be moving into garage forecourts with that kind of kit. That takes away all the angst around car-park charging, and on-street charging, and the idea of using lampposts to trickle-charge cars overnight, and stuff, you know. We have to learn that technology is killing range anxiety and all this special treatment around electric cars.
Me (re: chargers with access for all):
That sounds great for the near future, when the chargers and battery capacities of EVs allow you to “fill up” like that and forget it, but for the moment, with today’s vehicles, we still have to recharge on longer journeys. One concern I have is that as more organisations begin providing charging infrastructure, it could become more and more fragmented. I’m thinking of Tesla, for example, providing chargers that can only be used by Tesla drivers, and Shell providing chargers that all can use but needing yet another smartphone app, and European auto manufacturers announcing a network, which will only have CCS connectors, which they plan to have as standard on their cars. What are your thoughts on that, and what solutions do you see for a more integrated EU-wide system (including the UK — we have not left yet), and is there a role for government intervention to ensure standardisation at the national or EU level? (Which seems somewhat lacking, at the moment.)
Recently, our government has just decided that they needed to intervene by giving themselves powers to force all motorway service operators to install fast-chargers, and they don’t seem to realise that they all have them already. (Ha ha.) So, to the question of, do I think governments need to intervene, the answer is: “No, not really.” Unless, of course, they have a time machine and can pop back to 2011 and make it so. I think the answer to this question, and the problem, lies in the previous point, as to how it will no longer be a big deal. We will be able to just turn up and use the charger like we would a petrol pump. That’s coming, and I know we have got a lot of bespoke networks where you need different memberships and apps — that won’t exist in the future. I think the problem will solve itself.
I suppose by government intervention I was thinking more in terms of standardisation of charging connectors, and provisions like when the EU set the Mennekes 2 connector as standard for level 2 charging. Also, they could require anyone providing fast charging to the public to provide some level of universality of access, so that anyone could turn up and use those chargers. But, I agree with what you say, that if new chargers are going to be accessible to users with a contactless credit card and many more come online, then the problem will solve itself.
Me (re: incentives for off-peak charging):
I am currently taking part in a study, monitoring home charging, to see what the potential pressure might be of many EVs drawing current from the grid at the same time. One of the proposals for minimising such problems is to give EV drivers incentives to charge at off-peak times. However, the power distribution companies are the ones with that problem, but are not the ones who are able to offer the incentives, as that would have to come from the suppliers, such as Ecotricity. Do you have any plans to provide fully variable tariffs for EV drivers charging at home to enable them to take advantage of cheaper rates for electricity on a minute-by-minute basis, matching the fluctuations in wholesale prices? (Wholesale prices fluctuate with the level of demand.)
Well, nicely, although it’s a long question, I’ve got a one-word answer — yes. I could give you more details, but the answer is, yes.
It’s the smart metering programme that is making that possible. That begins in earnest next year, and it comes back to the answer I gave earlier as well. One of the complexities of being in the domestic supply market is, there is no metering on a half-hourly basis, which is the resolution point for electricity supply in Britain, by the half-hour, so you have to force the shape into it. What that means is, in effect, you can’t incentivise somebody to charge up in the small hours of the morning because you can’t see if they’re doing it or not. Smart metering solves that problem. So, the smart meter tariff that we’re planning for next year will fully cater not just for electric vehicles, but also for people with storage units that they want to charge up at night, as well. They can be fully reflective, not minute by minute, but of half-hour by half-hour changes in price on the grid.
Me (re: meeting the electricity demands as EV numbers increase):
Well, that is good news. I would really like to charge up at off-peak times, but the price is just the same, and I have no way of knowing, precisely, which time is off-peak.
It leads on nicely to the next question, and partly answers it. What are your thoughts on how electricity generation and distribution will meet the increasing demand from an ever-increasing number of EVs charging up at home and on the road?
It won’t be a problem. We made a calculation a few years ago of what it would look like if all of Britain’s cars were electric — 30 million of them — 250,000,000,000 miles per year. It worked out something like 12% increase in the grid-delivered electricity, which was, back in the day, about 3,000 windmills, or something like that. That is really nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that we couldn’t cope with. Of course, fluctuations in weather and demand and stuff have to be accommodated, but the smart grid that everybody talks about has to do that anyway, to allow increasing proportions of renewable energy into the grid, so I just don’t see that as a big deal.
Me (re: anything we missed?):
Well, that buries the myth that the grid would go down under the strain of all the electric cars if we all went electric. It has been great to have this opportunity to ask you questions about the huge achievement that Ecotricity has made towards putting green energy on the map. This has been your own personal vision, and you have provided the driving force to bring it to fruition. It all makes an inspiring story. Is there anything else you would like to say, to add any details to that story, which we have not yet covered?
No, I don’t really think so. The questions have been well researched and well structured. Thank you for the opportunity.
Thank you so much for this interview. I have learned such a lot, and your answers have been so insightful and detailed. It has been really fascinating, and I’m sure our readers will feel the same. We wish you and your enterprise every success in the future. I can’t wait to hear more about your EV projects and that top-secret project you mentioned, when it’s finally announced. Perhaps you will allow us to do an article about those, too.
Thank you very much.
There are many insights there in that interview. It seems clear that the way Ecotricity got started, without the dead hand of financiers to corrupt its aims, is through Dale’s self-sufficiency, built up over 10 years of living off-grid. He has developed the mindset of being totally self-reliant, and developed the practical skills to do everything himself. That enabled him at so many times to fearlessly go ahead — as he said, to do what he thought needed to be done.
Dale obviously has a real commitment to ethical business and environmental conservation. He has arrived at a position where he is able to use what has become a major force in UK energy to further those aims, which must be truly marvellous to do. Where I can write about these things and get indignant about inept business-as-usual governments, and big money exploiting the people and the planet, he can set up projects to actually bring immense environmental benefits and show people that business can be a force for good, given the right direction and a moral compass, which so many big corporations, sadly, lack.
As an EV driver, I was especially interested to hear that new mega-chargers are coming out as early as next year, along with chargers that just need a credit card to operate. It’s a bit of a hassle having to wade through all those stages in the smartphone app to get the charger running. What if I forgot my phone or it malfunctioned? It is just one more thing that can go wrong. I can definitely benefit from not needing the app, but I am not so sure about plugging my little Peugeot iOn into a 350 kW charger — it might squeal and run away. I’d have to check up on that one. The smart meters that would allow me to charge off-peak are also good news. I am looking forward to that.
I liked what he said about a 12% increase for the grid to run every car in the UK on electricity. EV detractors have tried to use it as a big scoring point to make out the grid would grind to a halt from EV charging. They are not all going to be charging at the same time in any case. With bigger chargers and bigger batteries, people will mostly charge at home still, but, as Dale says, will only need to “fill up” at a public charger from time to time, so driving an EV will become easier and more convenient than driving an ICE car.
I’d love to have a peek at his R&D lab, to see all those fascinating projects in the pipeline. Maybe a chance for a future article.