From quorn burgers to black boxes

The spirit of disruption is electric

We’re dedicated to helping you disrupt your markets. Or cope with it when the inevitable happens. And to help with a little insight and inspiration of how it’s done, we’ve created the Virgin Media Business Disruptor 10 list, in conjunction with Fast Track 100 – as published in The Sunday Times.

Here, in the second part of our 10-part series, we learn how constant innovation keeps you ahead of the competition. Step up Ecotricity…

Green energy. Windfall, or hot air?

The recent renaissance in nuclear power suggests storm clouds are gathering over the future of green energy.

Come 2020 the UK will have missed its targets for renewable power and, after years of wrangling, the development of the Hinkley Point Power Plant is to go ahead under the direction of Chinese and French companies.

This climate makes it all the more remarkable that Ecotricity continues to thrive. Since being founded in 1995, when the idea was laughed out of the boardroom by some of the energy industry’s biggest players, the firm has grown to over 200,000 customers. Meanwhile turnover has improved from £44m in 2011 to £131m in 2016.

Growing enviromental awareness

Founder Dale Vince believes part of the reason for Ecotricity’s success is down to launching some 20 years ahead of its time, which means it is now perfectly placed as the mass market starts to act on its growing environmental concerns.

“We’ve opened corporate eyes to the benefits of being seen to be green as well as being green,” he says. “Thirty per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions came from producing electricity the conventional way, making it the biggest single source of climate change. In terms of customers, the early adopters of Ecotricity were the ‘deeper’ greens, but as we move forward we’re reaching more and more ‘lighter’ greens. That is the general direction of travel for society – to be more concerned about the environment."

"We have people who ten years ago wouldn’t have been interested, but are now our customers. That places us in a very strong position.”


Intelligent household battery

In an industry dogged by poor standards of customer service, Ecotricity bucks the trend. It has been named Best Energy Company by Which? for two of the last three years and, according to Ofgem, has the lowest level of complaints in the industry. Dale says: “You ring, we pick up, our people are trained and capable of dealing with nine out of ten queries on the spot.”

Being unafraid to do things differently has been part of the company’s culture from the start. It was the world’s first green electricity supplier, built the UK’s first solar energy park and erected the first megawatt windmill. Now there’s another first to add to the collection – Ecotricity has been selected for the inaugural Virgin Media Business Disruptor 10, powered by Fast Track.

In keeping with its disruptive form, Ecotricity continues to innovate, and will shortly release an intelligent household battery product that will reduce reliance on grid power at peak times.

Dale says: “We’re calling it the Black Box. Essentially it’s an intelligent device we can use to distribute electricity across the network, balancing the grid. Currently we have these peaks and troughs in the national grid that mean we have huge power stations on standby, and that’s where inefficiency, pollution and costs come from. If every house had one of our devices, we would need 15 per cent less power station capacity – all because of intelligent demand in our homes.”

Which sounds all very well, but given the stiff competition involved in making it on to the Virgin Media Business Disruptor 10, does Ecotricity have further innovation in the pipeline? The answer is yes – with smart technology providing a green light to the future.

Weathering the storm

Dale says: “There’s room for such a lot of innovation in energy with the smart grid and smart homes and devices.  Already we’re making huge changes to our systems and processes to become more efficient as an energy company, to create online and app-delivered service to be more price-competitive. We’re appointing a director of business transformation to lead this. We’re also launching Ecotalk, a new SIM-only, carbon free mobile phone service. We’ll power all of the phone calls and data with renewable energy.”

Unlike many competitors, Ecotricity offers a simple single tariff. Dale predicts that a notoriously difficult environment means there will be casualties ahead, but the firm’s 20-year head start, disruptive spirit and loyal customers will see it weathering the storm – even with competitors responding to Ecotricity’s success by launching supposedly eco-friendly packages to cash in on the green pound.

Dale says: “A lot of companies pretend to be green, but they’re not green at all. Then there are deep green companies, such as Ecotricity and Good Energy. Honest competition is good for the market. Dishonesty and bankruptcy isn’t. There will be some bankruptcies this year. The Big Six look at the cost of service and try to minimise it. We don’t have any of that. Our target is great customer service. We have one tariff for everybody whether you have been with us for five minutes or five years. We want to keep it simple and keep it fair. It shouldn’t be exceptional, but I’m afraid it is.”

Vegan beer on the terraces

Perhaps Ecotricity’s most novel side line is its investment in the Stroud football club, Forest Green Rovers. In 2015, Ecotricity scored yet another of its firsts – relaunching Forest Green as the world’s first vegan football ground, with Quorn, burgers and vegan beer.

Dale says: “At Ecotricity we look at energy, transport and food as a joined-up picture and one that is within our control. We have to take our message to places where the message doesn’t usually reach. Stroud fans really get it – some have become vegetarian. They love the food, they’re talking about it online and they’ve really got the whole eco thing. What people don’t realise is that food plays a really big role in climate change. There is a lot of angst around food miles but I say don’t worry about it – it doesn’t matter where it comes from, it matters what you eat. If you stop eating meat and dairy and all that stuff, that’s the biggest difference you can make.”

It just goes to show, with determination and vision green energy can provide a windfall – and you might convince punters to eat the odd Quorn burger too.

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