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Dale Vince: shifting to renewables “needs no public money”

The eco-entrepreneur and Labour donor on the future of the green transition.

By Megan Kenyon

When the general election campaign began, Dale Vince got busy. The day after the 4 July date was set, Vince, the 61-year-old eco-entrepreneur and founder of the green electricity company Ecotricity, donated £1m to the Labour campaign. His lifetime contributions to the party have now surpassed £5m. (Vince also backed Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in 2019.)

When we met online, two days after Rishi Sunak’s soaked-through election announcement speech, Vince was buoyant about Labour’s prospects (he proved correct) and spoke highly of the party’s plans to deliver clean power by 2030. Now, Keir Starmer finds himself in the seat of power and ready to enact his green energy mission, with Labour winning the general election with a landslide majority of 174 seats.

“Clean power by 2030 is ambitious,” said Vince, “but it’s a good ambition to have and even if we fall short by 10-20 per cent, we will have done a great deal of things [to advance the transition] in the next five years.” In government, Labour is to establish a publicly owned energy company, GB Energy, which will help to set up a series of clean and renewable energy projects across the UK.

These projects form Labour’s green prosperity plan, which also includes a national wealth fund to accelerate investment in emerging green technologies such as carbon capture and storage, and green hydrogen. They were initially backed by a headline £28bn annual investment which, following a terse back and forth, was scaled back to around £4bn per year in early February. The party instead plans to crowd in private finance to scale up the infrastructure and investment needed to secure its goals.

Unlike others in the environment and green energy sector, some of whom were highly critical of Labour’s roll-back, Vince was unperturbed. “We can get 100 per cent of renewable energy with no public money,” he told Spotlight. “We’re at just over 40 per cent green energy on the grid right now. The real question is, how do we close the gap?” In that sense, Vince was ambivalent about the commitment of £28bn annual investment initially attached to Labour’s plans. “I didn’t think [the £28bn] was important,” he said. “The number itself had become like a millstone around Labour’s neck.”

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Vince explained that the real barriers to the green transition are not necessarily financial ones. Rather, the biggest hurdle to a fast, ubiquitous roll-out of green power is the UK’s tricky and long-winded planning system. One example he pointed to was the de facto ban on onshore wind, put in place by the former Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, in 2015.

“We have to reverse the Conservative planning ban on onshore wind, and restrictions on solar,” Vince said. He added that both of these roadblocks “impaired our march towards energy independence” by restricting the UK’s progress towards wholly renewable energy. “Both of those need no public money” but rather can be scaled up with private finance by removing those planning barriers, he said.

Labour’s team has clearly done its research. Following Rachel Reeves’s inaugural speech as Chancellor, the new government immediately lifted the de facto ban on onshore wind as part of its commitment to double it.

Labour’s plans for the green transition have been some of the most detailed of their pre-election policy offerings. Even before the date of the election was set, the party had already laid out what it would do with GB Energy and the national wealth fund. But currently, the party’s plans for decarbonisation remain quite technical. Vince’s advice to the new government in “[making] the case for the green economy” is to link it to the cost-of-living crisis.

“When the government decides to invest in green energy, instead of fossil fuels, it must make the case to people that it is the only way we can get energy bills down and keep them there,” Vince explained. This election was fought and lost on the cost-of-living crisis, with many fed up with the dire state in which the Tories have left the country. In fact, YouGov’s election tracker ranks the economy as one of the most important issue to voters (environment is also in the top six).

[See also: What does Labour’s win mean for the green transition?]

Vince, who founded Ecotricity in 1995, has been in the game for almost 30 years. He explained that, over this time, the importance of climate issues has shifted beyond purely environmental. “Green issues have become a cost-of-living issue in a different way [to how] they used to be,” Vince said. Therefore, the new government should ensure the public can directly see the benefits of investment, he said. GB Energy – as a publicly owned company – has the capacity to do this through its local power plan, intended to help community groups and local authorities deliver clean energy projects.

“[Nearly] seven out of ten rooftops are suitable for solar panels,” Vince said. “I’d like to see the public involved through a national programme of rooftop solar building, which could take us a quarter of the way to the 2030 target.”

Another crucial national project for Labour will be their warm homes plan. Backed by £6.6bn over the next parliament, the party has said it will “upgrade five million homes to cut bills for families”. It has not yet provided details on how it plans to do so.

The fact that the UK has some of the leakiest housing stock in Europe is a big problem for the new government; bad insulation equals higher energy bills. And around 74 per cent of households in England and Wales are still reliant on natural gas to heat their homes.

A wholesale transition to heat pumps – an electrical alternative that takes heat from the air or the ground and uses it to heat a property – is seen by some as the solution. Under the former Conservative government, the boiler upgrade scheme offered households subsidies to make the switch.

But Vince is not convinced that heat pumps offer an adequate solution; instead, he favours a transition to green gas, which Ecotricity makes itself and already uses to supply homes in Reading. He would like to see a “national green gas programme” from the new government.

The gas – which is made from grass using anaerobic digestion – can be used in existing gas boilers. The process of making the gas is similar to that which goes on in a cow’s stomach. Grass is harvested four times a year and put into a silage plant where it remains for two months to break down. It is then put into a digester, which helps it to create a methane-rich gas which can be burned. When the gas is burned, carbon is released into the atmosphere but is reabsorbed when the grass grows back. Ecotricity claims this creates a sustainable natural cycle.

Under Ecotricity’s estimations, decarbonising the domestic heating system by using green gas could “create almost 100,000 jobs”, particularly in the rural economy. “I think of it as levelling out,” Vince, who was born in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, said. “It’s not about from south to north, it’s about from urban to rural, and rural economies are really struggling.”

Vince was clear that Labour must bring residents along with the new government on this transition. “This has the potential to be like Ulez,” he said. “People don’t want to be told they have to give up their boilers, spend thousands of pounds on a heat pump, and have the upheaval of needing different radiators.”

It’s clear that green issues were not high on politicians’ agendas during the election campaign. But irrespective of whether party leaders want to talk about the climate, this is a problem that isn’t going away. Is Vince confident that Labour – the party to which he has given substantial financial backing – will fix things? “GB Energy would represent, for the first time in a very long time, a state intervening in one of our crucial infrastructure sectors,” Vince said. “There’s a business case for it.”

[See also: Alan Whitehead: “Clean energy is no longer on the periphery of policymaking”]

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