Ecotricity was founded in 1996 when founder Dale Vince brought renewable energy to the supply grid off his own back. Having been a self-sufficient man and what he describes as having “dropped out of society”, Dale’s house was run solely on the energy produced from his own windmill. He thought it would be a great idea if he could harness the power of wind and feed it into the national grid. He got planning permission to do this and the first windmill for Ecotricity was built. That was over 20 years ago and as Patrick New, Managing Director of Retail for Ecotricity explains, “it was the first time that green energy in the UK was of sufficient quality to go in to and be harnessed by the grid”. Now Ecotricity boasts almost 80 windmills in the UK, with the founder having “dropped back into society” for a good cause.
From their humble beginnings, Ecotricity now has over 200,000 customers, both business and domestic. Ecotricity is different to other green energy suppliers, who effectively play the role of brokers who buy and sell green energy. In contrast, Ecotricity produces a substantial chunk of their energy, around a quarter, and they also invest their bill money back into making renewable energy sources. This is a process which they aptly call “Bills to Mills”. Ecotricity also invests customer money into positive renewable initiatives through the creation of the Electric Highway, a network of electric vehicle charging pumps. They’re dotted all over the country – at petrol stations, as well as other locations, including carparks and alongside busy roads. The Electric Highway launched in 2001, and for the first 5 years it was free to use for customers. This was around the time that electric cars were just taking off, so Ecotricity made it free for their customers to help them switch to electric vehicles with the freedom of electric charging. This is what Ecotricity stands for: renewable energy for their customers, where the customers can be assured that their money is being put back into investing in renewable energy. Nowadays, customers pay the same amount for the Electric Highway as they would for electricity at home, so there is no premium.
In regard to Everyday Democracy, both Bills to Mills and the Electric Highway could be understood as democratising the production and consumption of energy. Ecotricity customers are able to switch to an energy company whose ethos matches their own, and there is transparency about where their money is going. They make a democratic choice by switching to renewable energy – but in this incidence, it is making their democratic power felt through energy provision. This is what Patrick New describes as people being “able to vote through their energy bills”. The company also has other ventures in the works, such as Eco Talk, where the money invested goes towards buying land in order to rewild it – securing habitats for wildlife, and for bee pollinators. Once again, this demonstrates how customers can be assured that their money is going towards something valuable to them, whilst also obtaining the service they need.
Ecotricity makes sure that they remain in line with their values. They are fundamentally against fracking, and they make sure that the energy they outsource never comes from fracking. They also use this value as a way of supporting other anti-fracking groups through the People Power fund. If customers joining Ecotricity decide to support the People Power fund, the funds are passed on to these front-line groups, to support their activities, such as providing jumpers in the winter to keep warm or supplies for posters and sit ins. This is just another way that customers can contribute and use their money as a democratic tool to support important political intervention, proving that companies can spark democratic activity as well as investing in green energy.
Please note: the views expressed are those of Patrick New, not Ecotricity.
This post is the final article in a series on Everyday Democracy and the Environment. You can read the other blogposts in the series here.