With a fortune estimated at close to £100 million, Dale Vince, a former hippy who once lived in a truck, is probably Britain’s most successful eco-tycoon.
The self-styled ‘Zero Carbonista’ has made his money – make that lots of money – from a wind farm empire that stretches from Somerset to Scotland.
Not everybody is delighted by his financial acumen, however. Vocal critics complain that his company’s rapid growth is one of the most glaring examples of the huge sums that can be earned from the generous subsidies available to wind farm owners.
An energy think tank has concluded that in a 12-month period, Mr Vince’s 14 wind farms have received more than £6.3 million in subsidies. In total over the past eight years his company Ecotricity will have received more than £22.6 million – a sum which is effectively added on to consumer electricity bills.
Should Ecotricity manage to put into operation all the wind farms it is currently planning, the annual subsidy will rise to close to £25 million, according to the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF), an organisation opposed to onshore wind farms.
The subsidy – known as the Renewable Obligation Certificate (ROC) system – was put in place by the previous Government to encourage energy companies to invest in renewable energy. But opponents claim the levy is overly generous and is encouraging a rapid growth of wind turbines in some of Britain’s loveliest stretches of countryside. They even suggest the ROC subsidy is leading to wind farms being built in areas where the wind is not necessarily that strong.
Margareta Stanley, REF’s spokeswoman, said: “The Renewable Energy Foundation has long argued that the ROC system has rewarded the wind industry with an income disproportionate to the quality and usefulness of the power produced … The income of companies such as Ecotricity demonstrates this distortion.”
In the village of Silton in Dorset, local opponents to a planned Ecotricity wind farm on their doorstep blamed the subsidy for making the scheme economically viable.
“This is a very inappropriate site for a wind farm,” said Chris Langham, chairman of the Save Our Silton campaign, “The ROC system is hugely generous which means that companies like Ecotricity can make wind farms profitable even in places where there is very little wind.”
Certainly Ecotricity is doing very well. According to the latest accounts for Ecotricity Group Limited, which is the holding and management company, turnover was up 36 per cent to £38 million for the year ending 30 April 2009. Gross profit was £15.4 million.
Mr Vince, 48, who prefers ripped jeans and a biker jacket to a business suit, is one of the most flamboyant and charismatic figures in the energy industry. His internet blog is titled Zero Carbonista and is accompanied by a photograph of Mr Vince in a style reminiscent of Che Guevara.
Although a relatively small player compared to the huge conglomerates who dominate the industry, his rise has nevertheless been spectacular.
As recently as the early 1990s, Mr Vince was, according to his own website, “living on a hill, in an ex-military vehicle I called home, using a small windmill to power the lights and stuff”. He had the brilliant idea of developing wind farms and has built up his empire since then. In 2004 he was awarded an OBE for services to the environment and now lives in a wing of a country house on the edge of Stroud, headquarters to the company he founded and still owns in its entirety.
Within the next few months, he plans to unveil a new type of electric sports car, capable of top speeds well in excess of 100 miles per hour and which he hopes will transform the staid image of electric cars. One high-earners’ list estimates his wealth at £90 million.
Mr Vince refused to talk to The Sunday Telegraph. But his spokesman pointed out that Mr Vince has said on many occasions he is not interested in money – only in providing renewable energy alternatives to old-fashioned, polluting fossil fuels. According to company accounts, Mr Vince is paid £65,000 a year as director of the company.
“Dale has said he couldn’t care less about money,” explained his spokesman, “We have been approached by all the big utility companies as well as the likes of Shell and BP but he has told them all he has no interest in selling.”
The spokesman refused to discuss REF’s estimates for the size of ROC subsidies received by Ecotricity. The spokesman added: “I don’t know whether those figures are entirely accurate.
“Their figures in isolation may sound like a lot but we are talking about major pieces of infrastructure. We spent £25 million in 2007 alone on building new sources of wind power. That puts their figures into a little more context.”
RenewableUK, the trade association for the wind farm industry, defended the ROC subsidy. “It is a good system,” said spokesman Charles Anglin, “The point about ROCs is you can only get financial support for the electricity you produce. It is not a subsidy in the traditional sense. It is an incentive to be efficient.”
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