27 February 2012
Ecotricity legal head Tom Cowling went from watching football to working at the forefront of the green energy movement
There are not many areas of the market more critical to the entire population, or as active transactionally, as the energy sector.
That fact was underlined by a recent peer panel discussion in The Lawyer (30 January), which touched on issues as wide-ranging as the shale gas wave, the post-Fukushima nuclear landscape and solar feed-in tariffs (FITs).
The latter is an issue close to the heart of one of the peer panel members, this week’s in-house interview subject Tom Cowling of green energy company Ecotricity.
Cowling, a media lawyer turned energy specialist, who trained at Schillings, is head of the two-person legal team at Ecotricity, the UK’s largest renewable energy company. If his company’s growth continues at the rate it has for the past few years, that in-house capacity is very likely to follow a similarly expanding trajectory.
The appetite for Ecotricity’s services was highlighted late last year when the company launched a £10m round of fundraising via its ‘Ecobonds’, the first of which appearing in 2010 and was heavily oversubscribed.
Signs of success
The proceeds from Ecotricity’s recent bond issuance were ringfenced to finance its investment into new sources of energy, primarily more wind turbines, but also solar and wave projects. The bond issues funded the construction of a number of renewable energy projects around the UK, including the country’s first 1MW solar park at Fen Farm in Lincolnshire, a wind turbine at the Ford Dagenham Diesel Centre and another at the G24 Innovations solar panel manufacturing plant in Cardiff.
“Drive over Bristol harbour on the M5, look right and you’ll see some wind turbines belonging to us,” says Cowling.
The one looming over the M4 at Reading is Ecotricity’s too. It is a very visible sign of the success of the company, which was founded in 1996 by Dale Vince, a former ‘new age’ traveller who received an OBE for his efforts promoting the green energy cause.
Legend has it that, prior to his businessman days, Vince lived in a truck on a hillside near Stroud in Gloucestershire for 10 years. These days, as founder and head of the multimillion-pound business Ecotricity, when not behind the wheel of a Nemesis (the UK’s first electric supercar, which Ecotricity built to prove that cars of the future could be wind-powered), he and his team are mostly focused on continued growth.
“Dale’s all about changing the way things are done,” says Cowling. “So that means you don’t have to eat meat, you don’t have to drive a petrol car and you don’t have to buy your fuel from traditional suppliers.”
The key commercial driver of Ecotricity is the power of the brand and the quality of the message, according to Cowling.
“That becomes the trademark,” he adds. “And Ecotricity’s looking to diversify that message to expand the power of the brand.”
The company is likely to start spreading its wings internationally in the future, but more immediately is extending its brand via tapping into the gas market.
“Not shale gas, as we believe that’s environmentally unfriendly and is also brown, ie not renewable, but gas from food waste,” clarifies Cowling.
FIT for purpose
Purely legal issues that Cowling faces include regulatory matters, commercial contracts such as employment, construction or IP, and planning (“a major issue when you’re talking about a 120m-high bit of kit”, he says of the gargantuan wind turbines).
The most topical issue that Cowling has faced recently was the Government’s U-turn on subsidies for large-scale solar projects and cuts to the FIT rate.
Ecotricity’s other lawyer, Miles Dearden, looks after much of the land and property contracts – a big issue, particularly in relation to the proximity of the turbines to residential areas.
Cowling also uses a handful of external firms for a range of issues, although the number he instructs has dropped dramatically, from around 12 to four, since his arrival at the Stroud-based company in March last year.
Labour of love
It is clear that Cowling loves working at Ecotricity, a company that not only breaks new ground in its market, but also builds racing cars and has an investment in a football team (Blue Square Premier League team Forest Green).
In addition to being at the forefront of the renewable energy market, Cowling says he also prefers the life of an in-house lawyer to working in private practice.
“I’m at the coalface, and the hours and lack of commute don’t hurt either,” he admits. “But it’s more that I’ve moved away from selling time on an hourly basis to having a much closer involvement in the business.”
Cowling says he has always been “a bit of a polymath” when it comes to the law, with a focus on media, IP and broader commercial matters. So the idea of being head of legal at an energy company is not as much of a stretch as might first appear.
Then again, he admits it was something of a “leap of faith” when he was first approached about joining the company. Perhaps the environment was to blame.
“[Dale and I] met at a football match,” he reveals.
Cowling appears to have scored a winner by joining Ecotricity.
Title: General counsel
Reporting to: Chief executive Dale Vince
Legal spend: Approx £300,000
Number of employees:280
Main external law firms:Bond Pearce, MacRoberts, SGH Martineau, TLT
Joe Souto, head of legal – governance, brand and marketing, EDF Energy
The priority for EDF Energy is to rebuild consumer trust. We are committed to competitive prices and providing a fair deal for our customers. At the same time we need to deliver the investment needed in Britain’s energy infrastructure if we are to maintain security of supply while delivering affordable, low-carbon energy.
This level of change can only be addressed properly in a world of trust, open dialogue and mutual understanding. We recognise, however, that the wider public has lost trust in our industry and so we are taking action to address this.
The legal function is working with colleagues to ensure the company operates in a compliant manner and supports the development of simpler, fairer and more transparent energy products that are both competitive and affordable. This is demonstrated by the fact that EDF was the last of the major suppliers to announce a price rise last autumn and the first to announce a price cut this year.
But we know trust is not just about prices. EDF is working on further steps to continue to build trust.
We are under increasing pressure to ensure compliance in an increasingly complex and regulated environment. As lawyers we have to embrace this and support our company in demonstrating that not all energy companies are the same.
Dominic Hearth, general counsel and company secretary, RES Group
RES invests in developing and operating renewable energy projects here and abroad.
The UK faces an energy gap: by 2020 almost 25 per cent of our electricity generation capacity – ageing coal and nuclear plant – will have been retired.
To help meet the shortfall (energy demand will rise over the same period), tackle the twin challenges of price and supply stability and comply with carbon reduction obligations, the Government is undertaking the Electricity Market Reform (EMR). This is intended to define the market and attract investment.
Most immediately deployable are onshore wind and gas power – the former unpopular in the conservative press, the latter regressive on energy security and climate change, and with a record of trebling prices in the past 10 years. Offshore wind will make a big contribution in the medium term and, after that, new nuclear plant may come online. Both technologies will rely on stable and effective support mechanisms.
It is therefore critical to the UK renewables sector and to meeting our power needs that the EMR does not hinder competitive access to the market for independent renewable energy generators. If excessive legal complexity and regulatory uncertainty results from the EMR, it will have been a self-defeating exercise.