How I Made It, the Eco-entrepreneur Dale Vince is turning Diamonds green
A self-described “petrol head”, the eco-entrepreneur Dale Vince assembled a team in 2008 to build the “Nemesis”, a heavily modified Lotus Exige that hit the road in 2010 and the following year took the British electric vehicle land speed record, which it still holds.
“We have just sent it off to be decommissioned. We are probably going to give it to the Science Museum,” Vince said. “Just ten years ago that car was cutting edge, first of its kind.
We were trying to promote the electrification of transport. Ten years later it is a museum piece. And ten years from now you will only be able to buy an electric new car in Britain.”
There is perhaps a no better illustration of the pace of change in the technology underpinning the UK’s shift to a low-carbon economy. And Vince, a one-time new age traveler, has been at the forefront of much of that change, first in energy through his Stroud-based firm Ecotricity, and more recently in transport, sport and food.
When he featured in the How I Made It column in The Sunday Times in December 2006, Ecotricity had just marked its tenth birthday. It had generated revenues of £14 million from selling its green electricity and from its fledgling wind turbine installation arm.
Roll forward 15 years and Vince has been busy. In addition to the supercar, he has expanded the core business to £230 million in revenues, entered solar power generation, introduced “green” gas to the UK, launched and sold the UK’s first electric highway charging network, acquired a non-league football club and turned it vegan, set up a catering firm supplying 3,000 primary schools with vegan meatballs and burgers, published an autobiography called Manifesto and, last month, started selling diamonds to the public made from carbon extracted from the air.
He turned 60 on Sunday and is not pausing for breath. “Our founding mission had been to change the way that energy was made in Britain as it was the biggest single source of carbon emissions at the time. Come the mid-2000s I had started to look at the second and third biggest sources — they were transport and food.”
Transport first. Driving his electric car made him aware that charging it was a problem. “We could see the industry was moving [to electric vehicles] and our efforts were best spent to build a network to charge the cars,” he said.
Forest Green Rovers, the Cotswolds club that Vince turned green and vegan, competes in League Two
GEOFF CADDICK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Ecotricity’s “Electric Highway” launched in 2011 and he ended up with 350 charging points, which were free to use for the first five years. The charging went from three-pin plugs at 7 kW to connections delivering 350 kW this year. “It was an incredible transformation in ten years,” he said.
The project has always lost money, however, and last year Vince sought out a partner to help him pay for the required investment. “It needs tens of millions of pounds. We didn’t have that,” Vince said. In came a company called Gridserve, backed by Hitachi, initially buying a 25 percent stake in March this year, and the other 75 percent three months later.
“The idea was they had the option to buy the rest of the company later. Something changed on their side and they surprised us when they said they were ready to buy the rest. We weren’t expecting that,” Vince said.
The sale has given him the money — and headspace — to focus on new projects, including green gas. “Conventional green gas is made by anaerobic digestion, often from the waste output from factory farms, slurry, and animal body parts. We want to avoid all those issues and have come up with a new way to do it with grass.” Construction on Ecotricity’s first green gas mill, generating 5 mW, is due to begin in Reading this month.
Vince welcomes the government’s recent activity on greenwashing in the electricity sector, and more broadly in consumer goods. “There’s too much of it going on,” he said. “It’s a terrible waste of the enthusiasm of people who are trying to buy something that makes a difference.” He’s much less keen on the proposed nuclear surcharge — to be levied on all consumers to help pay for the construction of new nuclear power stations. “It’s a regressive form of taxation because it hits the poorest people the hardest.”
Forest Green Rovers, the Cotswolds football club Vince rescued in 2010 and turned green and vegan — “a world-first” in football — now plies its trade in League Two. Vince said it had partnered with the United Nations on “Sport for Climate Action” and he is a UN climate champion, “which is pretty improbable,” he admitted, reflecting on his roots. “We are in the forefront of a sea change in sport, which is just incredible.” He hopes the club will be promoted this year and has an all-wooden stadium planned for them in “three to four years’ time”, designed by the architects Zaha Hadid, on a 100-acre site on the outskirts of Stroud, next to the M5.
And finally, those diamonds, made by taking carbon from the air. “We don’t need to mine the earth anymore [for diamonds], we can mine the sky,” Vince said. His Skydiamond venture can make 150 carats a month, with the capacity to increase that five-fold in the next 12 months. “It took seven years of R&D after I had the initial idea. We should be in retail at the end of September. Then we will start some collaborations with designer jewelry brands — although we don’t actually have a plan for that,” he said, not for the first time during the interview. He isn’t a “business plan” person.
He does have a plan to acquire listed green electricity rival Good Energy, where he has built up a 25 per stake and is courting shareholders. But in other matters, he said he has not changed his approach to business since he started. “I set out to use business as a tool in 1995. It’s an effective means to get something done. Our purpose is sustainability. We are not here to make money, we are here to make a difference.”
Reflecting on his position as owner-manager at Ecotricity and its offshoots, he added: “I am free to decide what the right things to do are. It’s a wonderful freedom. The best thing to have come from all this endeavour for me is the ability to say ‘Right, we are going to do this now because it’s the right thing to do’. We are going to speak out about this because it’s the right thing to do. I actually don’t care about the things a conventional business person would care about, worrying about whether someone might stop buying my stuff. If something I have said offends you then you shouldn’t be our customer.”
Dale Vince’s new book Manifesto: How a maverick entrepreneur took on British energy and won, is published by Penguin and available via the Ecotricity website.