He’s Electric — Will A Revolutionary Black Box Turn Dale Vince Into Europe’s Elon Musk?

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Dale Vince sits in a spartan office in the corner of Ecotricity, one of the UK’s few green energy electricity networks, and taps away on an Apple Mac at his standing desk. The office is bare, other than a normal desk, a couple of chairs and a Union Jack flag hung on the wall. But the Union Jack is not sporting its normal Red White and Blue. This is a Union Jack fashioned in various shades of green. For Vince is a died-in-the-wool ecologist. While running his company, he blogs from a site called “Zero Carbonista” which has an image of him looking like Che Guevara. He considers the drive towards an electric future as important as Elon Musk, founder of the Tesla electric car company. Vince is deadly serious about being “green” and now his plans extend beyond wind turbines into a radical new technology he hopes to roll out across the UK and which he is only now talking about for the first time.

With his gleaming white teeth and tanned appearance Vince looks more like a well-preserved rock star. In fact he remains the sole shareholder in Ecotricity, Britain’s largest green energy company. He is regularly listed as one of the richest people in Britain. But the mainstream energy industry considers him a an upstart.

He’s unrepentant about his public image as a rebel. As he proudly says on his blog, “I’m a hippie, I run a business .. to bring change to the world. My interest is the next Industrial Revolution… how to live without burning up the planet.”

Born in 1961, Vince was the son of a haulage contractor, an experience which, perhaps, gave him a restlessness for the road. He “dropped out” at 15 and spent a decade as a new age traveller, eventually beginning a love affair with wind power after living on a hill, in an ex military vehicle, using a small wind turbine for power.

His alternative lifestyle led him to be of those to occupy RAF Molesworth to protest against the basing of US cruise missiles there and he was among the those at the so-called Battle of the Beanfield, near Stonehenge, in the mid-1980s. But it was his business building wind turbines to take to festivals such as Glastonbury so that people could power sound systems that led him to found Ecotricity.

Indeed, his passion for wind power generation eventually led him to attend the Kyoto conference in 1997, which produced to Kyoto Protocol recognizing global warming.

Today, he is best known in the UK for being an unrepentant champion of wind power against the countryside lobby who see wind turbines as despoiling the rolling hills of the English landscape. But in those wind turbines lies a significant – and unusual – business.

Ecotricity operates a not-for-dividend model – reinvesting income from customers’ bills directly into new sources of renewable energy. It claims to have invested almost £400 per customer per year for the past few years in building new sources of sustainable energy. This has been estimated to be as much as 10 times more that more than any other British energy company.

Vince’s first turbine went up in Stroud in 1996. Today, Ecotricity has over 70,000 customers and 55 turbines.

It has led Vince down some unusual paths. He backed the development of the Greenbird to smash the land speed record for a wind powered vehicle.

And he came to the rescue of his local semi-professional football club Forest Green Rovers when it hit financial difficulties. Today, he has re-made FGR FC as the UK’s “greenest football club” with ultra-low energy LED floodlights, an electric bus for away matches, electric cars for players and a pitch made of organic grass.

But Vince’s parallels with Elon Musk perhaps became clearer when in 2010 he developed an electric sports car, the Nemesis.

On first encountering Vince, you’d perhaps laugh at the Musk comparison. Unlike the latter’s clean shaven and designer-suited appearance, Vince dresses in jeans and a T-shirt, and occupies a paired-down, almost basic, office in Stroud, deep in the English countryside. Not for him a grandiose HQ, but a corner of the building staffed, mostly, by Ecotricity’s call centre operators.

But like Musk, Vince’s electric car project started with big ambitions. It cost £750,000 to develop, and had a top speed of 135 miles per hour. But what Vince quickly realized – as Elon Musk did – was that he would have to put in millions to even get close to selling electric cars.

Instead, he turned his attention back to creating a revolution in home power generation, home electricity storage, a new “green” mobile phone network and a radical way to generate electricity from the sea.

Today, despite his unassuming appearance, Vince speaks quietly, though confidently, about how he plans to introduce new technologies into the UK’s homes and how – if they take off – he may be able to enter new global markets with his radical approach, generated from a part of his company called EcoLabs.

Harnessing the power of the world’s wind is, in part, how he hopes do it. First, he plans to start with generating more wind power from urban homes.

Urban wind power has famously failed to make much of a mark on electricity generation. A fad for small, chimney-mounted turbines failed to take off when they were found to be almost useless in the mostly windless urban environments.

But Vince says the technology was “dismissed too soon” and approached in entirely the wrong way.

“The big wind turbines are pretty efficient now. But for small scale wind power there are not many solutions,” he says.

To address the problem, he has come up with a radical new approach: a small, vertical access, wind turbine he’s dubbed the “Urbine” – a name which came to Vince after a simple spelling mistake in an email.

“We decided to do it as there was a hardware gap. The small home turbines were not working. WindSave [an early UK urban turbine project which failed] was supposed to be good but it was a disaster, bad for the Wind industry and bad for anyone that bought one.”

Vince thinks that these small turbines could generate 6KWs of power from their positions on the tops of houses and be up to 40% more efficient than similar sized windmills on the market.

To achieve his aim, 12 months ago he recruited engineers to start producing an Ecotricity-branded, vertical axis urban turbine.

Vince says wind power experts tend to regard vertical axis turbines as being less efficient than a traditional horizontal one.

“There is a huge advantage in producing a turbine with a vertical axis” he says. “The mistake was in scaling down big turbines. A horizontal axis machine has to face the wind, but they tend to be in built up areas where wind behaves far more differently than on wind farm sites.”

In other words, a vertical turbine literally “doesn’t care” which direction the wind is coming from. Because of this, it doesn’t waste time having to turn to face in the right direction of the wind. It can turn more or less constantly, so long as there is wind.

The first prototypes are going through testing and accreditation and could be sold as early as next year direct to consumers or as part of an Ecotricity account – though that remains undecided. Certainly they could also be ideal for small businesses.

Indeed, Ecotricity has a 15KW version on the drawing board. According to Vince, this larger version could have an application in the offshore world, which could lead, he says, to a “huge reduction” in the size of the generator. And, he says, “if you can shrink the generator you can make a bigger, more efficient machine.”

SEA POWER

As well as aiming to revolutionize both urban and big-scale on-shore wind power with his super-efficient vertical axis turbines, Vince plans to take on the challenge of wave power.

Historically, generating electricity from Wave power has been harder and less efficient than many predicted when the idea was first floated. However, Vince and his team have some up with a radically simple approach, which could revolutionize the sector.

It’s called the C-Razor. This is a wave energy device Ecotricity plans to test in different locations around the UK before rolling it out commercially. But this is not a normal wave energy device.

The current thinking around generating electricity centers around wave power – effectively putting turbines into the water which move as the sea pushes against them. The problems with this approach are rife – electrical turbines and water do not mix, obviously.

Vince wants to employ a simper idea. “The C-Razor is basically a pump. It side-steps the fundamental challenge of underwater generation. Making electricity in the sea is very hard, and expensive. We address the problem by using the power of the waves to pump high pressure water onto the shore.” From there it becomes a simple issue of turning a turbine and generating electrical power.

In fact, Vince has plans to create what is effectively a sea water “battery” by pumping the water onto a cliff top tank, and opening the valve to the turbine when the wave power is low. This simply cuts out the intermittent periods when there is less generative power in the waves.

“This is the holy grail of the industry,” he says. “It’s sea energy on demand. We think this could have global ramifications if we can make energy at the right price. As it’s so brutally simple, we think the economics will be right.”

THE BACK BOX

However, the most interesting new idea to emerge from Ecotricity’s ‘skunk works’ that he calls EcoLabs is something Vince dubs a “UPS”, or Uninterruptible Power Supply. More simply, he calls it “The Black Box”.

This will be a kind of Internet-connected battery with inverters that could live inside an ordinary home — a sort of big black refrigerator.

“We could use it as an energy company to deal with the intermittency of the wind,” says Vince.

Tantalizingly, he says such as device could “change the shape of demand” and could insulate houses from peaks in demand.

“Its intelligent. It lets people live the way they live right now rather than having to change their behaviour. At the moment behaviour is a big barrier.” The ramifications of such a device could be pretty big, if his numbers are correct.

AS BIG AS NUCLEAR?

“By our calculations,” says Vince “if everyone in the UK had a Black Box we could reduce the load on existing electric power-stations by 15%”. Fascinatingly, this also happens to the the amount that existing nuclear power contributes to the UK electricity grid and represents the looming energy gap as older nuclear stations get taken offline.

If Vince’s Black Boxes took off, their impact could – he believes – mean that the current grid in the UK would have many more years of demand left in it, without the need to add more generation. As Steve Jobs used to say: Boom.

In the UK – indeed, around the world – there is a huge debate about whether to built new nuclear power stations to replace older versions. After the nuclear disaster in Japan, it’s become a debate which has concentrated the minds of many a politician.

It’s hard to say whether Vince’s numbers stack up, and will no doubt require independent assessment. But it is a fascinating vision.

After all, as Vince says, uranium is not an indigenous energy source in the UK, or indeed much of the world. But wind power plus a big battery in every home, could well be.

The first trials of the Ecotricity BlackBox will be later this year in the UK.

AN ELECTRIC CAR HIGHWAY

Following that thought, Vince’s quest for simplicity in the distribution of electricity has lead him towards a fiendishly simple solution to keep electric cars charged up and on the road.

Currently most charging stations for electric cars have been put in towns and cities. However, he points out, this is the last place they should be to address so-called “range anxiety.”

Instead, Ecotricty plans to create an “Electric Highway” – a series of charging stations for electric and plug-in hybrid cars placed where they are needed, in between the UK’s cities. And what’s more, they will be free.

Charging up at an Electric Highway outlet could charge a Nissan Leaf – one of the latest plug-in electric cars – to 80% full from a flat battery inside 20 minutes. Or the time is normally takes to fill up with gas, take a comfort break and grab a coffee on your average long distance journey.

In practice it’s likely to be quicker than that given that most car journeys are not long distance. In the UK for instance, 96% of car journeys are less than 100 miles. Most modern EVs – outside of the Telsa – have a range of about 100 miles because they are designed for city driving.

Vince says Nissan and Renault, increasingly seen as leaders in electric cars, are already involved in the Ecotricity project, which plans to roll out over the next year.

It’s at this point you start to realize Vince’s dabblings in an electrical super car all those years ago might not have been so crazy after all. Where Elon Musk has pursued his electric car dream, Vince has thought about some of the wider problems with current electric networks and power generation.

Indeed, he says it was the direct experience of creating an electric car that lead to his idea of an Electric Highway. “The question is, what’s halting the take-up of the availability of EVs and overcoming range anxiety? The charging points are not on the motorways – they are in the wrong places,” he points out.

That range anxiety, believes Vince, has meant that consumers have been misled about the performance of electric cars.

He believes that the Tesla S range of 300 miles, while relevant for the US, is “excessive” for most other countries, especially small European ones. “All it means is that you are lugging around a lot of weight in batteries that 96% of the time you are not using,” he says.

Warming to his subject, he points out that while “the Tesla spec sounds nice, you have to wonder about it given that companies like Renault are bringing out much cheaper models which are mass affordable EVs.

“Maybe the Tesla will simply become more like a Porsche? It’s the big, mainstream car makers that will change the market for EVs,” he says.

But urban turbines, sea power and a vast electric network are not all Vince has up his sleeve. He’s even now looking at creating a electric tractor.

Dabbling in side-projects aside, ultimately Vince is most excited about creating products which will delight his Ecotricity customers under his “green” brand, Ecotopia. With the launch of a new online customer self-service system he wants to create “a kind of eco-cloud of services” which will eventually publish the realtime output of its wind farms.

Indeed, in many ways it seems like Vince wants to surround his customers with eco products. A new mobile phone MVNO called EcoTalk – which would be linked to Ecotricity’s per generation services, and thus effectively wind-powered – is planned for later this year with a mobile network partner, as yet unnamed.

Is there nothing Vince is not working on? Perhaps even food?

“We want to take our brand into other areas of people’s lives. Some 80% of people’s personal carbon emissions come from spending their money on three things: energy, transport and food. We began in energy, we’ve moved into transport, and food is one of our next frontiers,” says Vince.

“Ecotopia is about people being able to do good with their shopping bills, EcoTalk is about doing good with your mobile phone bill. All of these things will be inter-connected.”

With this all-encompassing green vision of a company which reaches into lives with a single green power and technology brand, perhaps it’s easier to liken Ecotricity to Apple. Vince clearly wants to build an ecosystem of products locked into and around the Ecotricity eco-system.

A younger Dale Vince, once lived on a hill to harness the wind for his own needs. Today, he’s catching the wind for the rest of the UK.