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Dale Vince has a winning strategy for sustainability

How the CEO of Ecotricity and owner of a vegan soccer club is promoting green energy and making the case for change.

This interview is part of the Inside the Mind of the CEO series, which explores a wide range of critical decisions faced by chief executives around the world.

In 2010, when Dale Vince purchased his local soccer club, his primary motivation was to save it from bankruptcy. But Vince, the founder of the British company Ecotricity — which says it was the first company in the world to sell green electricity — soon realized he could transform the club into a model for sustainability. By serving only vegan food to players and fans, capturing rainwater to irrigate the organic field, and installing solar panels and electric vehicle charging points at the stadium, he has since turned Forest Green Rovers into what FIFA, global soccer’s organizing body, in 2018 called the greenest soccer club in the world. And he has plans to go even greener.

A closer look at Vince’s life and career quickly illuminates why he would undertake such an endeavor. He describes himself as an econaut: an environmentalist, businessperson, and inventor. As a new-age traveler, he spent 10 years living off the grid until, in 1991, he made the decision to “drop back into society to try and make change happen.” Vince, now 59, has been on a mission to bring green energy into the mainstream ever since. He received an OBE (Order of the British Empire) honor in 2004 for services to the environment, and, in 2020, he published his first book, Manifesto: How a Maverick Entrepreneur Took On British Energy and Won, which is part memoir and part mission statement.

Vince’s goal is to change the decisions we make every day about three aspects of our lives: energy, transportation, and food. In addition to his soccer club initiatives, he promotes the use of wind and solar power, pioneered the electric car in the U.K., and has invented a way of making diamonds from carbon in the atmosphere. In a video interview with strategy+business, Vince explained how he has pushed his green agenda into the public discourse — and shared his vision of a more sustainable and prosperous future.

S+B: What is your approach to business?
I think it’s always about integrity. Being true to yourself and having perseverance and persistence. I have always been less concerned about persuading other people that things were viable and more interested in just doing them — because I think that is the best way to persuade other people. Not to try to convince people of something theoretical, but to actually do something and show that it works.

That’s what I have done with Ecotricity. I started the company in 1995 because the way electricity was made in Britain was the biggest single source of carbon emissions. Selling green electricity was a new idea then, and we’ve been pioneering in wind and solar power in Britain since. We also introduced green gas to Britain, which made us a joined-up energy company. Once we found that energy, transportation, and food were responsible for 80 percent of people’s personal carbon footprint, it simplified and demystified the ecological problem that we face: We need to focus on those three things.

S+B: Is the electric car that Ecotricity developed an example of this approach?
Yes. We made one called the Nemesis, and it broke the U.K. land-speed record for electric vehicles [151.6 mph]. We started that project in 2008, before there were any fully electric cars that you could buy — mainly to demonstrate how we could be getting around in a post-oil world. By the time the Nemesis was on the road, in 2010, other car manufacturers were making electric cars. The electric car revolution was beginning.

We could see that we weren’t needed in that space, that this wasn’t where we could best use our efforts. But we could also see that the charging infrastructure was missing, and people wouldn’t build chargers because there were very few cars on the road, and people wouldn’t buy cars because there was nowhere to charge. It was a classic chicken-and-egg situation. And we said, “We’ll build the electric highway.” We started in 2011, with a national network of electricity pumps on Britain’s motorways. We expanded to install chargers on smaller roads and enable people with electric cars to travel across the country.

In March 2021, Ecotricity announced a partnership with Gridserve and Hitachi for a £30 million [US$41 million] program to update the electric highway with new 350-kilowatt chargers. Ten years ago, it looked like a crazy idea that we should all be in electric cars. Today, we can see it’s coming. Our government is banning new fossil fuel cars in just 10 years’ time. But they’re behind the curve. Manufacturers won’t even be making them at that point. To many people, it may seem improbable that we’re going to have this big transition. But it’s absolutely happening, and it needs to happen.

S+B: That was a smart pivot to electric vehicle chargers. Where can other companies find value in a more sustainable approach?
I think, fundamentally, it’s more economic to do the right thing than the wrong thing. Renewable energy, for example, is a great democratizing force in world affairs because the wind and the sun are available to every country on the planet, whereas oil and gas are not. We fight wars over oil and gas quite literally because it’s such a precious resource. And here in Britain, we spend £55 billion [US$76 billion] every year buying fossil fuels from abroad to bring them here to burn them. And if we spent that money on wind and solar machines instead, we could make our own electricity, create jobs, and be independent from fluctuating global fossil fuel markets and currency exchanges. We can create a stronger, more resilient economy, as well as a cleaner one.

S+B: There still seem to be barriers for businesses and individuals who want to be more environmentally conscious.
We’ve been lobbying for a change to VAT [value-added tax], because in Britain, you pay 20 percent VAT to put solar panels on your roof at home, but you pay 5 percent to burn coal. It doesn’t make sense for the tax system to reward bad behavior and penalize good behavior. These are the kinds of changes that need to be made. I think that people increasingly want to see these changes, as well. That’s important.

Businesses are picking this up. They know their markets, and that’s why we’re seeing a proliferation of plant-based foods, electric cars — all the good things that we need to do to make this transition. The green economy itself is fundamentally more economic than the one we have now. We can create more good jobs in the long term than we have in the old industries.

S+B: Many companies are trying to transition their business to enable a net-zero society. How can you tell when they are serious about it, rather than trying to get good PR?
It’s a question of looking at the details. What do their commitments amount to? Where are the hard targets? Where’s the progress going to be made? Where’s the money that’s going to be spent, and where is the actual transition? It’s about realism and not accepting public announcements at face value. It shouldn’t be an afterthought; it should be inherent in the business model.

S+B: What will happen to organizations that don’t focus on these issues now?
I think businesses historically reinvent themselves. They move with the times or they die, and that’s a natural order of things. And some businesses just get left behind because their business model becomes outdated. A nimble, adaptive business will move from the old way of doing things and will still be here. Investors are beginning to shy away from companies that aren’t making the transition fast enough. Customers are also shying away from businesses like that. Companies will feel those pressures. And at some point, for every business, they’ll realize that they have to make the change or that they waited too long.

S+B: What’s the biggest challenge for traditional utility companies in the U.K. transitioning away from fossil fuels?
At the core of this transition we have to make is an economic problem about stranded assets. If you’re a generator and you’ve got big power stations, you don’t want to turn them off. You want to get the maximum return and see them come to the end of their life. You might even want to extend their lifetime.

But we’ve got to give things up. We’re going to have to take a loss in some areas, because we’re going to need to start the new things sooner rather than later.

S+B: You haven’t stopped looking at new forms of renewable energy. Ecotricity recently signed an agreement to enable the production and sale of geothermal electricity for the first time in the United Kingdom. Why is that significant?
Geothermal is a really exciting form of renewable energy. It’s not a new thing in some parts of the world. It exists in places like Iceland, where you’ve got the geology for it, but it’s new to Britain, where advances in drilling technology have now made it possible along the southwest coast. It’s not possible anywhere else in the U.K. yet, but if the advances continue, then it will become possible.

Geothermal is on 24/7, a super baseload. And so it will play — or it has the potential to play — a big role in the 100 percent renewables-powered grid that we need to get to. I love the idea that we can repurpose old thermal power stations that are fed today by coal or gas. If the technology allows, we can drill there instead and can feed them heat from geothermal. They’ve got the infrastructure, the cooling towers, and the grid connections, and we can just turn them into geothermal power stations.

S+B: What are the most important metrics for companies that want to measure their sustainable platforms and show they are serious?
Carbon reporting is a fundamental; knowing your carbon footprint, reducing it every year, and offsetting the residual. But offsetting is not the answer. We can’t use measuring and reporting as a reason not to reduce. The end goal has to be just how we get to zero carbon. The answer depends on the business you’re in.

The green economy itself is fundamentally more economic than the one we have now. We can create more good jobs in the long term than we have in the old industries.”

I own a football club [Forest Green Rovers], for example, and we focus on energy, transport, and food: how we power ourselves, how we travel, what we eat. [Ecotricity is a sponsor and investor.] The club is powered by 100 percent green energy; we cut the grass with a solar-powered lawnmower, we installed solar panels and electric vehicle charging points, and we are fully vegan, serving award-winning vegan pies that are now also available through food retailers. But we also have to focus on single-use plastics and waste management so we send zero to landfill. We are an organic football club, so we can reduce the use of chemicals on the land — fertilizers and pesticides. We irrigate the field with rainwater. And we have a kit [uniforms] made out of bamboo fabric, which is a natural material.

S+B: And now you’re looking to build a whole new stadium out of wood, which is unique, and bring nature back to the planned area surrounding it.
Yes. The name Eco Park is a kind of nod to the concept of sustainable development. We’re going to push the boundaries of that with the whole park concept. At the moment, it’s 100 acres of farmland. When we’ve built a 4,000-job green tech business park and a football stadium, there will be a 20 percent boost of biodiversity against the farming background, which makes two points.

One is that farming creates wildlife deserts, and people see green fields and think that’s natural, but it isn’t. The second is that we can have sustainable development. We have to build places for people to work and for people to live, but we can do that in a way that makes room for nature. We’re going to create a new wetland, and a new stretch of canal. We’re going to plant thousands of trees and kilometers of hedgerows to bring nature into this development and make it a beautiful place to visit, to work, or to watch football. And to demonstrate how we can develop the future in a properly sustainable way.

S+B: How has the soccer club been a useful tool to get your message across?
Buying the club was serendipity. It wasn’t planned or even foreseen how it might pan out. But it has enabled us to take our message to a new audience, who may or may not like it.

As I’d mentioned, it’s the most effective way to get somebody to change — to show them what you do. At the football club, we’ve seen that with our fans going veggie and vegan and buying electric cars and solar panels. They’ve embraced our mission completely. A couple of our players every season also become full-time vegans.

S+B: Forest Green Rovers is now at the forefront of helping sports organizations fight climate change; it is the first club to be certified as carbon neutral by the U.N., and you personally have been given the title of U.N. climate champion.
A lot of the talk now in sport is about needing to take responsibility for the environment. We’ve got a global platform through Forest Green for our message, and working with the U.N. has been incredible. We’ve seen some of the Premier League’s biggest clubs signing up to the Sports for Climate Action Initiative, for example, as well as some of sport’s largest organizations [such as FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, and the NBA]. I have a wild imagination, and I still never would have imagined this would have happened 10 years after rescuing our local football club.

S+B: What are some of your new and next big ideas?
The most improbable idea I had was seven or eight years ago, and that was to make diamonds from the atmosphere, from the sky. I knew it was a big ask, but I didn’t think it was impossible. But whenever I spoke to anybody about it, they looked at me like I’d gone crazy.

Last November, I launched Skydiamonds. My team and I created a process for making diamonds from carbon dioxide extracted directly from the atmosphere, which is, for me, a really brilliant, exciting thing to do. It’s a carbon-negative industrial process, making something we quite like to have from something that we have too much of.

The next thing for me is a water device. Water is a big climate issue as well, of course. This device brings together a number of cutting-edge ways of treating water. It is compact — just a bit over one cubic meter in size — and is designed to be dropped into a hole in the ground next to a house and capture all of the water from the drainpipes, from the dishwashers, the washing machines, and the toilets, and turn it into better-than-tap-quality drinking water. It’s been through the lab tests now for a couple of years. It does the job, and we’re just miniaturizing it and perfecting it for production. Besides addressing a shortage of drinking water, it’s got a great application in the developing world for disaster relief.

S+B: How do you think we will be living in the future?
We’ll have a cleaner country and world, we’ll have a stronger economy, we’ll be creating proper long-term jobs for people, and we’ll just live in a happier place. I’m looking at the mountain of things that need to be done, and I’m thinking, what are we going to do next? And I’m having fun.

Although the pace of change may feel a little slow at the moment, it’s got this habit of doubling up on itself. I think we’re really at the start of an exponential curve, and the next few years are going to be dramatic and exciting.

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