“I’ve spent my life in pursuit of a different way to live” says Vince at the outset, and his first effort at that is dropping out and joining the new age traveller movement. Moving from place to place, he spent the 80s living in vans and buses, frequently moved on by the police, and cobbling together a living out of mechanics, scrapping and running his own tow truck. Living self-sufficiently, he rigged up his sites with small windmills to provide basic electricity, and this led to a fascination with wind power.
After a decade of this, Vince had what he describes as an epiphany: “I could spend another ten years living a low-impact life myself, or I could drop back in and try and build a big windmill on this hill. And have a bigger impact that way.”
This was in 1991. The first commercial wind farm in Britain had just been switched on that year, so it was an emerging field. Vince could see the potential, but had “no experience, no qualifications, no money” and was living in a trailer. “I knew the hill I was on was windy – everything else I would discover and learn.” And so he taught himself the science and the engineering, then the planning processes and the funding, the complexities of getting a grid connection. But the turbine was built. One thing led to another, from an international mast company to a wind company, then to Ecotricity.
The book reports a series of ‘firsts’ in its central pages. Ecotricity basically invented the idea of ‘green energy’, being the first to specialise in and market renewable energy to its customers. They built the first 1MW wind turbine and the first solar park in the country, the first wind turbine with a viewing deck for visitors at the top.
Transport was the next challenge after energy. Vince wanted a ‘wind powered car’ that could charge off his wind turbines, but there weren’t really any viable electric cars on the market in 2008. So he set a team of engineers the challenge of building an electric supercar, and documented the project on Youtube. The Nemesis broke the UK electric car land speed record, and played an important part in resetting car enthusiasts’ views of what an electric future could be.
Ecotricity also built Britain’s first national EV charging network. By moving early they secured prominent locations at motorway service stations up and down the land, often right next to the main entrances. Companies vast and cool and unsympathetic have regarded these charging locations with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against Ecotricity. You’ll get the inside story of all that – or Vince’s side of it anyway – in the book, along with other tales of corporate subterfuge.
In all of this, Vince’s priority remains on the environmentalism first, re-investing profits back into the business of growing sustainable solutions. “We make money for the mission: our mission is not to make money.” I’m a big admirer of this approach, which is why I’m an both an Ecotricity customer and (micro)investor myself.
There’s more, including a bit about their experiments in green gas, which I’ve written about on the blog before. There’s lots of detail on the takeover of Forest Green Rovers, turning it vegan and how the football fans responded. The club is now recognised by FIFA and the UN as a leader of sustainability in sport, adding a whole new avenue to Ecotricity’s work. The ‘sky diamond‘, which I wrote about last week, sneaks in at the end.
Manifesto won’t give readers much of a sense of Dale Vince as a person, with no stories from his childhood, family or personal life. Neither do you get anyone else’s perspective of the man and his work. But what you will get is the story of an imaginative and uncompromising entrepreneur putting his energies into creating a greener future, and an inspiring example of doing business for good. We’re like “environment capitalists” he says. “or maybe we’re venture environmentalists, or maybe just environmentalists using business as a tool. Choose your favourite.”
- You can get Manifesto from Earthbound Books UK, or US. (If you buy a copy, you might want to enter the competition here to visit the sky diamonds plant)
- If you sign up for Ecotricity with this link, we both get some kind of bonus. I don’t know what it is because I don’t think anyone’s ever done it.
- This is the second book I’ve read this year about somebody building a wind turbine for themselves, the other being William Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Interesting double bill.