At the tail end of his prolonged hippie phase, Dale Vince noticed that on the hill in the English countryside where he was living, it was unusually windy most of the time. It was windy enough, he reckoned, to support a wind turbine that could provide a significant amount of electricity to neighboring homes - a turbine more ambitious than the makeshift devices he was using to provide heating and power for his own low-cost, self-sufficient lifestyle.
THUS BEGAN HIS hippie-businessman phase. It took five years for the fledgling entrepreneur to get permission to erect a turbine on the hill, but when he finally built the thing, it worked rather well. Well enough, in fact, that it provided the foundation for Ecotricity, a multimillion-dollar enterprise billed as Britain's first green electricity company. Today, the 46-year-old high school dropout - who describes himself as a rebel who didn't want a career or a mortgage or any of the other trappings of conventional life - has been honored by Queen Elizabeth II and Al Gore for his company's innovations, and environmentally conscious Prince Charles is an avid supporter as well. Vince is regularly approached by Britain's captains of industry for advice about how to get clean, cost-effective electricity for their growing power needs. The startling success of Ecotricity is one reason why wind-power usage is advancing more quickly in Europe than in America and other parts of the world. The company Vince founded more than 10 years ago now has more than 100 employees, and its graceful, state-of-the-art wind turbines are slowly changing the look of the British countryside and of the urban landscape as well.
"I used to sit on top of hills and look out at a sea of neon in a town and try to imagine the amount of energy being burned just to carelessly light the night, and it boggled my mind," he says. It was that concern that made him decide to launch a company despite his total lack of business experience. Vince, who still wears his hair long and his clothes casual, works in the company's smallish, homey offices next to the railroad station in Stroud, a market town in Gloucestershire. His first wind turbine is nearby, on a hill outside of town - and it's still turning, although its design is somewhat outmoded now.
"So I decided to start by building a wind turbine on the hill I lived on and devote myself to learning wind energy, which is a complex subject but very fun," he continues. "We built the first turbine after five years, and I went to the local power company looking for a decent price for the electricity, and they laughed at me. This was in 1995, and the rules had been liberalized in Britain, so I got a license to be an electricity company. We became the first green electricity company in the world. The idea was to cut out the middleman, reach the end user, and get a fair price so we could build more windmills. That started this whole retail adventure, and it's much bigger than I thought it would be, in terms of complexity and effort."
TODAY, ECOTRICITY IS responsible for a number of innovations. At one of its locations, in Norfolk, the company has built a 215-foot turbine with a public viewing platform that can be reached by climbing a 300- step spiral staircase inside the column. The platform offers not only a magnificent view but also a sense of the power of the wind as the giant blades swoosh by. The company has installed its most advanced turbine at Green Park in Reading, right next to the M4, one of Britain's busiest highways. That giant turbine has become a familiar landmark to the 100,000 motorists who drive by it each day, and city planners are now thinking about adding additional turbines in order to further brand their city as committed to sustainable energy. In addition, Ecotricity has developed a concept called Merchant Wind Power, which refers to the building and operation of turbines at industrial facilities so that companies wanting to use renewable-energy sources can power their plants with wind.
The best known of such businesses is probably Ford Motor Company's new dieselengine plant in Dagenham, which is in east London. Ecotricity built two wind turbines there, and they provide enough electricity for the plant to produce 400,000 engines a year. As a result, Ford gets energy for the factory without burning fossil fuels and also enhances its stature in Europe, where companies that show environmental awareness often generate customer goodwill.
Andy Taylor, a business-development director at Ford of Europe, says the company was looking for a highly visible renewable energy project for the plant and quickly decided that advanced wind turbines would be ideal. Ford considered buying and operating the machines, but they decided to keep their capital investment low by signing an agreement with Ecotricity, which installed the turbines and maintains and operates them for Ford. This setup made the choice easy for Ford, because it minimized the risk, Taylor says.
After three years of operation, Ford executives are pleased with the decision and plan to add a third turbine as the plant expands. Taylor says the company is saving a "substantial" amount of money, because the cost of conventional electricity has increased since the wind turbines came online.
"In the first year, they delivered just over 100 percent of the electricity we were expecting; in the second year, it was just about 90 percent; and this year will be the highest ever, about 110 percent," Taylor says. "So, based on our experience, they've delivered exactly what we were expecting. Of course, that's on an annualized basis. You can't say that about every half hour. But we don't stop the plant when the wind is not blowing; we just draw down from the grid. There has never been a production slowdown."
The Ford setup fits Vince's vision of a clean-energy system in which power is generated where it is needed and without using a complex and expensive system to deliver the power to customers. It lessens dependence on the national electricity grid and reduces the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere at a time when the burning of fossil fuels to create power produces about 30 percent of Britain's greenhouse gases.
"It's very important," Vince says. "It's the ultimate form of decentralized power, because you get behind the customer's connection to the grid. Making power where people use it is one of the things renewable energy has to offer. It comes in small building blocks; you can put it where people need the power. You can do away with the need to upgrade national grids to keep pace with population growth and demand growth. Regions can start to generate their own power, and then towns and villages can generate their own power. As demand grows, wind turbines are a great alternative to bringing in more power lines."
MUCH OF ECOTRICITY'S strategy depends on the ability to persuade British consumers to switch from a conventional electricity company to its brand. Since many people think of this as a complicated endeavor, one that would make their power supply dependent on the wind, the company has launched an informational campaign emphasizing that it takes only about five minutes to switch to Ecotricity and does not involve any risk or extra cost. On the company's website (www.ecotricity.co.uk), and in person, Vince emphasizes that moving to wind power is the simplest, easiest way Britons can reduce their contribution to the emission of greenhouse gases, which may lead to global warming. So far, the company has 30,000 customers, including 1,000 businesses.
"What we're saying is that since we all use electricity, we have a shared responsibility, and the biggest thing we can do personally is to change where we get the electricity from," he says. "To do that takes care of Britain's biggest contribution to climate change, and it's very simple. We do all the work - we contact the electricity company, we send you a letter giving you a start date - and probably within four weeks, you'll be our customer. We all stay connected to the national grid; that gives us the reliability. We put our power into the grid, and everyone takes it out. We can't direct our electrons straight to your house, but we put electrons in, and you take some out."
Vince says wind-turbine technology and design has improved so much in the past 15 years that it is now practical to think of supplying all of the United Kingdom's electricity via renewable-energy sources. He believes a great majority of the needed electricity could be supplied by wind, and some could also come from wave and tidal power. He says the new generation of wind turbines, like the one installed at Green Park in Reading, produces energy much more efficiently than earlier machines, which has allowed the cost of wind-generated electricity to come down substantially.
Others have made the argument for sustainable electricity, but Vince has been unusually successful at turning this concept into a thriving business. He has covered a lot of ground since 1990, when he built his first small wind turbine in order to power his cell phone and recharge the batteries he used for lights. He was ahead of the curve in preaching the need for expanded use of renewable-energy sources, but now public opinion has caught up.
To find more customers - the goal is to have one million in the next decade - Ecotricity has joined forces with the Ecologist magazine, a British publication that reaches a high proportion of people who want to be green consumers. The magazine is encouraging its readers to switch to clean, wind-powered electricity, says publisher Tyler Moorehead.
"We've gotten thousands of people to switch to Ecotricity," she says. "The people who make the switch are so excited, they want to do it right away, and it captures their imagination. What people really appreciate now is - they sort of see that all they have to do is pay around the same amount of money for the same service, so why wouldn't you want to do the better thing? One of our mantras is to say, 'Why not make the right thing easy?' Ecotricity is an example of a really basic service that anyone needs, and every penny of the money they get is reinvested or leveraged to build new turbines. What we really like about them is they were able to fuse a grassroots campaign for renewables with a viable business model. They started small and built up."
Vince says attitudes toward the burning of fossil fuels have changed more in the last 12 months than in the entire previous decade. He credits several factors, including the visible signs of global warming, the impact of Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth, and a top-level British government report that showed it will cost far more to fight climate change in the future if serious actions are put off today. Vince notes wryly that some of Britain's biggest companies now approach him, looking for ways to go green. He sees this as a sure sign that wind power is no longer viewed as a fringe technology.
“Wind power has become a very serious business,” he says. “Fifteen years ago, it looked like the preserve of a few enthusiasts, but you can see it’s turned into a global business. We have moneymen knocking on the door all the time now. We use a German company as a major supplier. When I first met them 15 years ago, they had 60 people; today, they have 11,000 employees around the world. And the technology has changed massively — the turbines are much softer variable-speed machines with no gearboxes that absorb the energy. It’s a very sympathetic engineering principle: working with the wind, not fighting it.”
If Vince has his way, the entire country — if not the entire world — will soon be doing the same: working with the wind, not fighting it.