The ex-hippy who's made 100m carpeting Britain with wind turbines (and swapped his battered camper van home for a 2.8m 18th-century fort)
10:23 GMT, 10 December 2012
The large rectangular window in Doreen White’s living-room frames such a timeless East Anglian scene that she sometimes feels she’s gazing out at a landscape painting by Constable.
As winter descends, its beauty is stark and sparing. Washed by a watery sunlight, the flat, brown fields stretch out for miles to a tree-lined horizon broken only by the world’s tallest parish church tower, the 500-year-old Boston Stump, which soars 272ft into an otherwise empty sky.
Down the decades, fresh dykes have been dug and a solitary telegraph pole erected, but the view across Heckington Fen in Lincolnshire has otherwise changed little, and its serenity drew Mrs White and her two sisters to buy a retirement bungalow there when they left their jobs in London.
For three years, Ecotricity, founded and solely owned by Dale Vince, 51, has fought for the right to transform Heckington Fen into one of Britains biggest on-shore wind-farms
To their anger and sadness, however, it seems that their treasured ‘Constable painting’ will soon be desecrated — ironically not by some big, environment-wrecking conglomerate but by a renewable energy company whose boss (a former New Age traveller) trades on his hippie credentials.
For three years, Ecotricity — founded and solely owned by Dale Vince, 51, a long-haired, earringed hero of the Green movement — has fought for the right to transform the fen into one of Britain’s biggest on-shore wind-farms.
There would be 22 giant turbines, each rising 410ft to the tip of its swishing blades and dwarfing the famous Stump.
According to Vince, who wore his working uniform of ripped jeans, a tie-dyed vest and psychedelic trainers when I met him at his office in Gloucestershire, they could produce enough electricity to power 39,000 homes.
He insists he is not interested in the considerable profits his ‘windmills’ (as he romantically calls them) bring, except insofar as he can plough them back into yet more projects designed to save mankind from global warming.
‘It’s a mission,’ said Vince, who until two decades ago lived in a battered ex-military van and is now estimated to be worth 100 million. His company owns 17 wind-farms, plus a solar energy park, and supplies electricity to 70,000 customers. ‘Our work is about outcomes. It’s not about making money.’
Like other anti-wind farm protesters I spoke to, Mrs White holds a different opinion, decrying the heavily subsidised wind-energy industry as a costly, inefficient ‘money-making racket’.
In the summer of 2010, Vince paid 2.8-million for a huge, castellated 18th-century folly set in nine acres, with a magnificent hilltop vista
Council planners and the majority of residents are also fiercely opposed, claiming the turbines would cause noise pollution and other environmental hazards, and destroy valuable farmland, but the final decision rests with the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey.
As a keen proponent of wind-power, the Lib Dem minister is expected to approve it — much to the chagrin of his junior minister, John Hayes, a Tory whose constituency happens to be just three miles from the fen.
Mr Hayes believes that with 3,300 on-shore turbines operating in Britain, and a further 964 under construction, the countryside is already ‘peppered’ with them and that ‘enough is enough’.
He had planned to air these fears in a recent speech, but Davey reportedly forced him to tear it up. This Coalition-threatening split is typical of the bitter divisions in the shires as the Government seeks to meet its target for lowering carbon by sanctioning a forest of turbines across the country.
Plans for almost 3,000 of these land-based monsters are being considered, and almost wherever they are lodged residents rise up in furious revolt, forming action groups, lobbying MPs, and turning against landowners who make easy money by renting out their fields.The anti-wind brigade won their most recent victory last week, when a Government inspector ruled in favour of villagers who campaigned against another of Dale Vince’s proposed wind-farms in the scenic Vale of Berkeley.
The ‘Heck Fen’ project is on a much bigger scale, however, and — with the Energy Secretary’s decision thought to be imminent — Doreen White and her sisters are resigned to defeat.
‘From our kitchen and dining room we can already see another wind-farm, with 13 turbines, so if this one’s built we’ll be surrounded — and these 22 will be much bigger and closer,’ she says.
‘The farmer who will rent out the land doesn’t even live in Lincolnshire. He’s from Derbyshire, so he won’t have to look at them. And this energy company owner lives in Gloucester. I wonder how many he can see from his window.’
The answer, Vince told me, when we met, is just one — his own, of course. So what lies behind the extraordinary rise of this son of a lorry driver
In 1985 Vince was part of the infamous Battle of the Beanfield, when 1,300 police trapped the hippies in a Wiltshire field to prevent them staging a free festival at Stonehenge
Vince went to grammar school but hated it with a passion — the petty rules, the preparation for a steady career. And when he left shortly before his 16th birthday with nine O-levels: ‘It was the happiest day of my life,’ he told me in his Cotswolds burr.
For a while he simply hung about with some biker mates, and suffered serious injurious in a crash. But he got an A-level in computing and began a degree at Stafford Polytechnic before dropping out once and for all, at 21.
He joined the so-called Peace Convoy of about 600 hippies then roaming the country in battered camper vans. His parents were so disappointed that for a time, he said, they ‘disowned’ him.
He recalled how in the summer of 1985 he was part of the infamous Battle of the Beanfield, when 1,300 police trapped the hippies in a Wiltshire field to prevent them staging a free festival at Stonehenge. During the bloody confrontation 16 travellers and eight police officers needed hospital treatment and more than 500 hippies were arrested.
Vince says he was among them, but is rather vague about what happened afterwards. He says he ‘thinks’ he was convicted of some offence — ‘probably criminal damage to beans’, he remarks sardonically — but as he declined to attend court he can’t be sure.
‘It was a violent time,’ he reflects. ‘There was no justice for the travellers and no legal motivation for what they (the police) did. They behaved like animals — they were the outlaws.’
It was while on the road and living rough that Vince taught himself how to make electricity from a rudimentary wind-turbine propped on the roof of his van. The entrepreneur in him stirred when he charged Glastonbury festival-goers to power their mobile phones.
Then, in the Nineties, after visiting Britain’s first wind-farm, in Cornwall, he decided to ‘drop back in’ to society, and — with a loan from a Green bank — set up his own electricity supply business. In yet another ironic twist, the opportunity was provided by the Tory government — that he despised.
Vince has installed himself as club chairman for the ailing local football team, non-league Forest Green Rovers, and he appointed his son Dane as business development executive
They had just introduced regulations to open the electricity market to all-comers, and he got planning permission to erect a turbine beside the van where he lived, at Nympsfield, Gloucestershire, and was granted a licence to connect it to the National Grid.
People began to rebel against the hippy-businessman, and he found himself on the other side of the fence. Farmer Ian Blair, who led the first of many protest groups to form against him, recalls how dozens of incensed villagers — including the priest — picketed the site where the Grid connection was located.
They found themselves confronted by menacing, uniformed security guards — something of a volte-face, given Vince’s distrust of authority and his experience with the police at Stonehenge.
During these turbulent early years, Vince briefly abandoned his scruffy clothes for a collar and tie, hoping to be taken more seriously by the ‘suits’ he was forced to deal with.
As his fortunes rose, he and his family stopped camping and moved into their first house . . . which brings us to that wind-turbine he can see from his window. From his previous homes, he says, no turbines were visible; but he has recently moved and now has a clear view of one, which pleases him because in his eyes his towering machines are not ugly.
They are ‘majestic and graceful — elegant moving sculptures’.
So where exactly had he moved to, with this wonderful new view ‘To another house,’ he replied tersely.
As I later discovered, ‘house’ is something of a euphemism. For several years, he and his second wife, Kate, 38, lived with their four-year-old son, Rui, and his two other sons by previous relationships (both of whom are in their 20s and work for him) in a wing of a converted hotel, bought through his company, near Stroud.
In the summer of 2010, Vince paid 2.8 million for a huge, castellated 18th-century folly set in nine acres, with a magnificent hilltop vista.
Leaving aside the obvious question — how on earth does this square with his hippy ideology — it is not clear how he could have afforded this grand new residence.
Vince went to grammar school but hated it with a passion – the petty rules, the preparation for a steady career. And when he left shortly before his 16th birthday with nine O-levels
Until 2009 he drew a salary of about 65,000, and when interviewed last year he reportedly said this had risen a bit because he now had a mortgage. The conundrum is solved by carefully examining the company’s accounts. Though his wife has worked for him for more than a decade, three years ago she became a co-director, thus more than doubling their joint income, to 148,875 in 2011.
More intriguing still, however, is a transaction briefly outlined in the 2009 accounts, whereby he sold the brand-name Ecotricity to his own company — for 3 million. Even after tax, the cheque he pocketed would have substantially helped with the 2.8 million price for his new fort.
Of course, there is nothing illegal about this, and since Vince is Ecotricity’s only shareholder, he is free to spend its money as he pleases.
That said, these figures show the huge profits to be made from wind farms, which would not be viable without subsidies they receive under the Government incentive scheme, which roughly doubles the amount their owners are paid for electricity supplied to the National Grid (the extra cost is passed down to consumers through their electricity bills).
According to an energy think-tank study, Ecotricity raked in 6.3 million from these subsidies in 2010, an amount which has probably risen considerably because they have three more wind-farms, and will sky-rocket if Heckington Fen gets the go-ahead.
(Vince clearly loathes talking about subsidies, but defends them by claiming they add just 4.68 to a typical household electricity bill, and that nuclear energy requires double this to be viable.)
His newly inflated income and aristocratic dwelling — he even accepted an OBE — also sit awkwardly with Vince’s insistence that he has no interest in wealth. (‘There’s much more to life than money,’ he told me.)
One wonders, too, how his lifestyle will be regarded by the Green-minded small investors who bought the ‘Ecobonds’ his company issued over the past two years, raising 20 million with the pledge that it will be spent on renewable energy projects.
To the annoyance of Forest Green fans who object to being served veggie-burgers at half-time, Vince promises to make it the world's most environmentally-friendly soccer club
Some investors are said to have been unhappy about Ecotricity’s recent ventures, such as the 750,000 spent to develop the Nemesis ‘supercar’, which two months ago broke the British land-speed record for an electricity-powered vehicle, and sat sleekly in the company car park (next to Vince’s battery-operated Nissan Leaf) when I arrived.
He also paid 695,000 for the ailing local football team, non-league Forest Green Rovers. Vince has installed himself as club chairman, appointed his son Dane as business development executive and — to the annoyance of fans who object to being served veggie-burgers at half-time — promises to make it the world’s most environmentally-friendly soccer club.
Players have been banned from eating meat at the ground, there’s an ‘organic’ pitch and solar panels around the ground.
During our interview, Vince also revealed he has agreed a Green joint-venture partnership with former Manchester United star turned Sky TV pundit Gary Neville, but declined to discuss specifics.
Perhaps, then, it was the prospect of stirring yet more controversy that took the wind out of the entrepreneur’s sales when I mentioned his increased family income and the somewhat unusual 3 million brand-name deal.
‘I’m not really going to put up with a lot more of this, to be honest with you, because I find it unpleasant and a bit off the subject,’ he seethed.
Fearing the interview was about to be terminated, I backed off.
However, he explained he had registered Ecotricity’s name privately ‘for historical reasons’ and the company had used it under licence. They bought the name outright to ‘consolidate’ it, and it had to be sold at market value, set by experts at accountants KPMG, for tax reasons.
As for Doreen White, and anyone else who complains that wind turbines are ruining their bucolic idyll, Vince Dale has no sympathy.
With the Earth overheating and our children’s future at stake, he opines, they should be less ‘selfish’ and think about the ‘big picture’.
For a man who insists he’s still a hippy at heart, it seemed a rather harsh and dogmatic stance to take.
And I fear Vince’s old Peace Convoy comrades might choke on their lentils on hearing his windmills have made him rich enough to swap his yurt for a fort.