Dale Vince has done all right for a former hippy. Reckoned to be Britain’s wealthiest green energy tycoon, he lives in a castle, drives a £750,000 electric sports car and sits on a fortune worth more than £100 million.
Not content with saving the planet, last week he rode to Ed Miliband’s rescue too. Just as the Labour leader was reeling from accusations he had deserted British business, Mr Vince intervened.
Through his green energy company Ecotricity, Mr Vince donated £250,000 to Labour’s election campaign. In so doing he became the most prominent entrepreneur to back Mr Miliband’s Labour Party.
A Telegraph investigation into Mr Vince’s financial dealings suggests he has reason to be grateful to the Labour Party – and in particular Mr Miliband, who ran the Department of Energy and Climate Change for two years during Gordon Brown’s premiership.
An examination of official government data shows Ecotricity presently receives in the region of £6 million a year through a generous subsidy introduced by Labour to encourage renewable energy projects.
In total, Ecotricity, which Mr Vince wholly owns, has been paid £36m in subsidies since 2002, when the scheme began, and which Mr Miliband oversaw as Climate Change Secretary from 2008.
The subsidy is added to household electricity bills and paid by consumers, pushing up bills for all households. It is probably fair to say Mr Vince has earned more from the Labour-introduced subsidy than any other individual in the UK.
Ecotricity’s accounts show a huge empire being built by Mr Vince. The business owns 19 wind farms, mainly in England, two solar parks, and an online retailer selling eco-products.
The company supplies electricity to more than 150,000 customers and, according to the last available accounts for the 12 months to April 2014, enjoyed a turnover of £70 million.
Ecotricity also owns a football club, which has banned the sale of meat pies and burgers at half time, and even its own “eco car” business, including the manufacture of an electric sports car, called Nemesis, which Mr Vince has used as his runabout.
The car cost £750,000 to make, more than half of it paid for by the UK taxpayer through a technology grant made under the last Labour government.
A new wind farm being planned by Ecotricity in Lincolnshire will be the fourth largest in England and is expected, in the future, to earn Mr Vince a further estimated £4.75 million a year in consumer subsidy.
An analysis of Ecotricity’s wind farms and solar parks shows just how much Mr Vince has benefited from Labour’s generous subsidies.
The Renewable Energy Foundation (REF), a think tank that is critical of the scale of subsidies, examined data on electricity output produced by Ecotricity over the past 13 years since the Renewables Obligation scheme was set up to encourage the subsequent growth in wind farms. The scheme effectively allows onshore wind turbine owners to charge double for the electricity they produce.
Data available to the think tank shows the subsidy for Ecotricity’s wind farms and solar parks has cost consumers almost £50 million in 13 years, of which £40 million has been paid out since 2008, when Mr Miliband was put in charge of energy and climate change policies. The faster growth in recent years is reflected in additional wind turbines built by Ecotricity in that period.
Dr John Constable, REF’s director, said: “We estimate that Ecotricity’s wind turbines have cost consumers about £48 million pounds in subsidy since 2002 when the Labour government introduced the Renewables Obligation scheme.
“They are currently costing consumers about £6 million a year in subsidy, but this will rise to over £10 million a year when work is completed on the consented Heckington Fen wind farm, which will be one of the largest wind farms in England.”
Accounts posted by Ecotricity show its six directors – including Mr Vince and his second wife Kate – earned amore than £800,000 between them. But Mr Vince has also received more than £3.1 million from his company in the form of an interest-free loan.
One City accountant who studied the Ecotricity accounts said Mr Vince would be taxed on the interest-free loan as a benefit in kind of about £60,000 – far less than if he had received such a sum as a salary and been charged the top rate of income tax on it. The accounts do not state what the loan to Mr Vince was for – nor offer an explanation as to why no interest was charged on it.
A tax barrister said one explanation for the loan was it allowed Mr Vince to “delay” paying tax on what is effectively his income. Mr Vince must repay the loan at some point or else face an income tax demand at the top rate of 45 per cent while his company will be charged corporation tax if he does not repay the loan within a certain period.
Jolyon Maugham QC said: “Loans to directors are relatively commonplace. Sometimes they’re used as a soft alternative to third-party borrowing. But they can also be used to delay a tax liability on what is essentially income. If the loan isn’t repaid within nine months, there’s usually a corporation tax of 25 per cent on the lender.”
The money may be needed to fund a potentially expensive court case in which Mr Vince, 53, is being sued by his first wife over their divorce settlement 22 years ago.
Kathleen Wyatt, 56, claims she is owed maintenance payments and compensation despite being divorced in 1992 when they were both poverty-stricken. The case is to go before the Supreme Court in what would be a groundbreaking ruling.
An Ecotricity spokesman said the money was being used for “family stuff”.
The Ecotricity accounts for 2009 show Mr Vince sold to Ecotricity, which he completely owns, the rights to use the name Ecotricity. The transaction earned Mr Vince a further £3 million. A year later, Mr Vince bought an 18th-century castle in Gloucestershire, close to the company headquarters in Stroud, for £2.8 million.
Mr Vince, the son of a road haulier, left school at 15. He joined a hippy convoy and lived in a truck until realising the possibilities of making electricity – and a living – out of wind turbines. His business began in the Nineties with the deregulation of the electricity supply industry but boomed under the Labour government.
In announcing the £250,000 donation to Labour, Mr Vince said: “We’re putting our money where our heart is – we’ve watched the Coalition Government systematically undermine not just the renewable energy industry in Britain but the whole green economy. We feel compelled to act.”
Under pressure from Conservative backbenchers, the Coalition has cut back on subsidies to wind farms in the past two years while applications to build new wind farms have been regularly refused under a change in planning rules.
Wind farm developers can expect a much more favourable environment should Mr Miliband be elected Prime Minister. In 2009, when secretary of state, he said opposing wind farms should be as “socially unacceptable” as “not wearing your seatbelt or driving past a zebra crossing”.
Opponents of wind farms have argue they are expensive, unreliable and unsightly.
Owen Paterson, the former environment secretary, questioned Ecotricity’s donation to Labour and said he feared policies to slow down the growth of wind farms would be reversed under a Labour government. He said that would lead to increased electricity bills for the poorest households, forced to pay extra for higher green energy subsidies. “It is odd that Mr Miliband is involved in this expensive redistribution,” he added.
Martin Hill, Conservative leader of Lincolnshire County Council, who opposed Ecotricity’s plans for 22 turbines, each 410ft tall, at Heckington Fen, also questioned the Ecotricity donation. “Are they trying to buy policy through the Labour Party?” he asked.
Ecotricity was granted planning permission in 2013 for Heckington Fen but construction on the site has yet to begin. The company said last year it was trying to overcome a problem with installing a technology to ensure the turbines do not affect aircraft radar in the area. The turbines cannot be built unless the technology is in place, jeopardising a wind farm that would be by far the largest in Ecotricity’s portfolio.
A spokesman for Mr Vince said: “We can confirm that £3.2 million has been loaned to Dale Vince by Ecotricity Group Ltd in the form of director’s loans. Company tax was paid on this amount at 25 per cent by Ecotricity to HMRC, and Mr Vince personally paid income tax on the benefit-in-kind. The loan is expected to be repaid in the next 12 months.”
The spokesman said Ecotricity had received £36 million in subsidy payments since 2002 but that had helped to fund the £100 million-plus cost of building 55 “windmills”.
The spokesman said the subsidy for onshore wind represented excellent value to consumers. “Onshore wind adds less than £10 to the average UK energy bill, which compares well to the £85 paid by each household each year to support the decommissioning of existing nuclear power stations,” he said.
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