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Leadership Spotlight: an interview with Dale Vince, Chairman of Forest Green Rovers and owner of Ecotricity

Dale Vince is the straight-shooting former new age traveller who set up the multi-million-pound green company Ecotricity in the mid-90s and has since gone on to become one of the leading voices in the UK renewables sector.

In 2010 he bought Gloucestershire-based Forest Green Rovers, turning them into the world’s first ‘green football club’, serving up vegan burgers at half-time and cutting the grass via a solar-powered robot they call the ‘mowbot’.  

He spoke to Thomas Barrett about his plans to build a stadium entirely of wood and changing attitudes towards the environment in the ‘brutal’ football world.

Does the green tag ever bother you?

You could say the opposite, not only do we not mind, it’s our badge of honour. According to FIFA, we’re the greenest football club in the world. We wear that one with pride and the stuff we do gets us the most incredible media attention so we love it.

That’s what we present to the world. We’re using football as a channel to communicate our thoughts on the environment and sustainability.

Your new stadium is set to be built entirely from wood. Many people still remember the Bradford fire disaster in 1985. Are there safety concerns? 

A CGI image of Forest Green’s Zaha Hadid designed new stadium. Currently in the planning stages.

Bradford comes up but there are things to bear in mind. Today is a no smoking environment so there’s not much combustion risk.

Also, the stadium at Bradford wasn’t designed to evacuate at all quickly. Old stadiums didn’t have that in their design criteria whereas modern stadiums are designed to empty in just a few minutes, so the risk of being trapped if there was a fire is very low.

Also, the wood we have engineered is fire resistant, so it’s safer in a fire than steel, which will collapse under a certain temperature. Wood will just char.

All in all, it’s not on the same planet as Bradford in terms of safety. It’s on a par with the most modern steel stadia. Eco park gives us a chance to start with a blank piece of paper.

What we’ve got now we’ve retrofitted to the best of our abilities something that was not designed with the environment in mind.

Does the sports industry take their environmental responsibility seriously?

I don’t want to judge other people. Generally, the whole world of sport doesn’t take the environment into consideration enough. it’s not just sports and it’s not any different in business.

We all need to be much better at that. When you look at the carbon footprint of a stadium in its entire life, 75% comes from the embedded carbon in the material of construction. So choosing to build in the right material is actually the biggest difference you can make to having a low carbon footprint for your entire lifetime. Wood is a super sustainable material and it will be the greenest stadium in the world.

People aren’t always aware so you can’t blame them, what we’re trying to do at Forest Green is make the world more aware of the choices. We’re about getting our fans to understand the choices about how they power their home and how they travel and what they eat.

How has the community at Forest Green reacted to your green agenda?

Crowd numbers have quadrupled since we began this journey and there’s an immense amount of pride in the club from its fans and a lot them are in the very local community.

We had fans from Chicago at the game last Saturday after they learned about us in the media. They started a fan club in America. People around the world are identifying with us. We’re creating a global community which is fantastic.

What lessons have you learnt from running a football club that you have been able to use at Ecotricity, and vice versa?

At the beginning of this, I thought we’d bring our ethos into the world of football which looked a bit brutal in some areas. We took that into the club and as well as our knowledge in PR and finance and created a thoroughly modern club. Football has taught us things such as an attitude to performance and organisation. Because there’s a game every week there’s a sharp focus on success. It’s very visible. That’s been an interesting thing. The experience of running a football club has permeated into our consciousness as a business. So there’s been a cultural exchange between the world of business and football.

We build our infrastructure every year and our message will have a bigger platform the higher up in the leagues we play.

What green initiatives are you hoping to bring to the club next?

LED floodlights will come in next season, it’s a big upgrade. I’d like an electric team bus, but they are not in the world yet, we’ve thought about making one.

All of your players drive electric cars, what’s your opinion on hydrogen fuel cell cars?

EV charging point outside their New Lawn stadium. Photo by Shane Healey.

They’re pointless. Hydrogen is a particularly un-dense fuel medium. The energy density of batteries is increasing all the time and the infrastructure will soon compete with petrol or diesel.

Hydrogen is a gas that will permeate any container you put it into and the infrastructure for charging it doesn’t exist. It will need to be transported in big tankers.

The infrastructure for EV is already there for us. I can’t see a single good reason for hydrogen.

Do government do enough to support the growth of community energy projects?

The government aren’t doing enough to support renewable energy actually, they are doing all they can to hold it back except for offshore wind. There’s a great opportunity for renewable energy because it’s community-scaled and people-scaled. We can all dabble in it at home or in groups or towns, it’s a great opportunity to democratise the energy industry, but not under this government.

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