Extinction rebellion just 'more of the same shit that hasn’t worked'

Environmental entrepreneur Norman Crowley says inventions not governments - or protests - will provide solutions

 Norman Crowley from Crowley Carbon at his office at Powerscourt House: ‘Revolution is in the blood.’ Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Norman Crowley from Crowley Carbon at his office at Powerscourt House: ‘Revolution is in the blood.’ Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

“We don’t f**k the customer.” The blunt sales message boldly adorns the wall of Norman Crowley’s second floor office, between two sash windows overlooking the pristine gardens of Powerscourt Estate in Co Wicklow.

The mantra is fitting of the man, a tech entrepreneur whose focus has shifted to the environment in the past decade. So is its juxtaposition with such a landmark Irish vista.

Crowley’s persona is that of a no-nonsense sweary ass-kicker from Cork, mischievously irreverent to the business establishment. Yet Crowley is also endearingly pleasant and polite.

Unnoticed by the tourists perusing the impressive gardens, Crowley’s environmental empire is run from the second floor of the historic house. For the last nine years the serial entrepreneur has set his sights on saving the planet, and making a healthy profit along the way.

The tone of his office maxim is perhaps a reflection of his impatience, which chimes with another message on the walls of Crowley Carbon, this time from the far less profane, but equally impatient 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg.

“We have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not.”

Thunberg, the teenage environmental activist who has shot to fame over the past six months, delivered this message to world leaders at the COP24 conference in Poland last December.

Despite his evident admiration for Thunberg, he has no time for the recent Extinction Rebellion protests.

“It’s more of the same shit that hasn’t worked. I’m slightly conflicted by it because I greatly admire Greta Thunberg’s work, and I’m a big fan of her efforts, it’s stunning to watch, but I think the extinction plan is flawed.”

Does it not at least draw attention to the crisis at hand? “I think in solving climate change we have a lack of technology and a lack of engineering, we don’t have a lack of complaints. And the political will isn’t going to change, so the willingness of politicians is not going to fix this problem in time. What will fix this problem in time are inventions, and that is what we deeply lack. We are now starting to get there but we need to move so much faster. So having a march – I admire those people – but it’s not solving the problem.

“Yes, government can do more than it is doing, but technology can do 50 times more to achieve this, so our tendency is to blame government, but actually it is in our own hands to solve this and it will be solved by our own hands, it won’t be solved by government, certainly not in Ireland. ”

Entrepreneurial roots

Born on a farm in west Cork and trained as a welder, Crowley’s entrepreneurial roots are in tech. Having started and sold his internet business, Trinity Commerce, for €18 million at 29 years of age, he went on to set up Inspired Gaming Group in 2001. It was eventually floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2006 with revenues of $500 million and profits of $100 million.

By then he had also met UK investor George Polk and created The Cloud, which went on to become Europe’s largest wifi hotspot provider, which was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB for $80 million in 2011.

Doing nothing is really not appropriate now. Financially, it’s irresponsible and morally it’s irresponsible

He points to Polk’s interest in environmental issues, along with watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth at the time, as the turning point. Crowley Carbon was born in 2011, with Polk as chairman. Its business is to help companies dramatically cut their energy usage.

With a client list of global multinationals from every sector of business and the energy waste issue centre stage, he says it’s a hectic time for his company right now. “China is insane, as is India. Australia, which we thought would be a slow burner, has become an absolute monster for us.

“Crowley Carbon is a machine at this point and it’s just about how fast we can expand. This business now has a different set of problems to the start-ups. The issues for the company today are getting the people in fast enough: the right locations and the right people.”

That morning the head of the company’s Dubai office phoned him with news they had just finished a project with food giant BRF at its plant in Abu Dhabi. It had taken three of his team working 11 days to save the plant 174 megawatts an hour. “That’s the equivalent of a small power plant,” says Crowley. That day BRF posted on its Facebook page that by adopting the new energy system at the Abu Dhabi plant it was saving enough power to supply more than 4,500 mid-size homes.

Crowley says at this stage he is less concerned with companies choosing his rivals – of which he says there are surprisingly few – and more with businesses that don’t make the effort to change.

“Doing nothing is really not appropriate now. Financially, it’s irresponsible and morally it’s irresponsible.” The basis for Crowley Carbon is to make financial sense for the client at the same time as making environmental sense for the climate.

“Our job is to make better products so that these changes, they can become more obvious to them.” Crowley believes the same principles apply to consumers these days.

“The example we always use is a fictional family in Leixlip: she works in Intel and he works in Pfizer. Combined they earn about €110,000 between them, so they are the Irish middle class. What is it that they can do? Well, 15 years ago they really couldn’t do that much that was practical about climate change, unless you wanted to be a raving hippie. Now, they probably buy one electric car, they can put solar on the roof of their house and they can get a financial return for that, they can probably go vegetarian a couple of days a week and not suffer too much hardship.”

Electrifi founder Norman Crowley with Minister for Health Simon Harris at the car company’s launch in April. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Electrifi founder Norman Crowley with Minister for Health Simon Harris at the car company’s launch in April. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The Leixlip family’s lifestyle change touches on two of Crowley’s latest projects. In recent weeks he announced plans for his new electric car start-up, Electrifi, to build a factory on the Powerscourt site that will initially retrofit classic cars to run on electric power.

It will employ 150 staff but that’s just the start. He foresees a future where Electrifi will develop its own high-end models, low volume but with very high margins, the business modelled on the McLaren sports car set-up in the UK.

As part of its entry to the market, Crowley took a 30 per cent stake in an established player in the market, the Electric Classic Cars (ECC) in Wales. Part of the €50 million investment in the start-up was to deliver a new factory to ECC.

So why does Electrifi need another factory here? “Because we are an Irish company and we see our responsibilities to Ireland. We take that seriously. So we are going to do something in Powerscourt, but over the next three years we are probably going to do another car factory in a lower cost Irish location, if there is a low-cost Irish location – we don’t know where that is yet.”

I don’t have aspirations to be a billionaire. I don’t know a lot of happy billionaires

The fictional Leixlip family’s move to vegetarianism a few days a week is Crowley’s other opportunity. He has a “meatless meat” start-up in the pipeline, which will come to market next year. Inspired by the likes of Beyond Meat, which is due to float on the stock exchange in the US in the coming months, Crowley says: “We have all the actors in place to make it happen. We’re not doing this on our own. There is one Irish and one international partner, both high-profile food giants. The level of investment is in tens of millions.”

He dismisses the suggestion that consumers are still cynical about such products. “I do a lot of public speaking on entrepreneurship and climate change and we do it to some big crowds. I started to do a thing lately where I say ‘your energy will come from solar within 10 years, you will be driving an electric car within 10 years, half of your current meat diet will be ‘meatless’ within 10 years’. In a crowd of 400 people you can hear titters and sniggers. Well, if you’re laughing at me when I’m saying this you are going to lose a lot of money in the next 10 years. That’s not because I’m right, just look at the data. It’s shocking. And it’s all pointing this way.”

Sustainable

Crowley has a reputation for selling his businesses after 10 years. This time it’s different. He’s staying put at Crowley Carbon. “We normally sell around the 10th anniversary and it was a big decision for us. We were turning down a very attractive offer at the time – and there is a lot of money in this sector. The big guys want to come in and buy companies like us so when we said okay we’re going to do another 10 years at least, then we have to make it more sustainable and take a look at how we build the team so they can be sustainable as well.”

As for a flotation, Crowley says: “No, that’s the thing that could take us down. We have access to capital if we need it: but the business throws off enough money to finance the start-ups.”

Crowley admits to being an optimistic environmentalist. It has changed his perspective on life. “I was all about making money in the first 20 years and it was really only George [Polk], our chairman who woke me up.

“I don’t have aspirations to be a billionaire. I don’t know a lot of happy billionaires.”

Instead, there are a lot more paranoid billionaires. Richard Branson is one of the exceptions. “Branson is one of the few happy billionaires out there.”

His admiration for Branson is also evidenced in his office. A photograph of Branson opening Crowley’s Cool Planet Experience at Powerscourt hangs on the wall. The world’s first visitor centre dedicated to climate change was opened last year by the Virgin Atlantic founder.

A more historic hero also has pride of place in the otherwise uncluttered Powerscourt office: a small statue of Michael Collins sits on Crowley’s desk. It’s a replica of the Collins statue in Clonakilty, which Crowley and his brother Tim helped to fund.

Along with running the family farm, Tim also runs the Michael Collins Centre in Castleview. Their grandfather, also Tim, was arrested in west Cork in 1916 and jailed in Frongoch prison in Wales with Collins and a few more locals. He was released a few months later. “You see, revolution is in the blood.”

CV

Name: Norman Crowley, founder and chief executive of Crowley Carbon

Age: 48

Family: Married to wife Anne, with two children, Danni (18) and Alannah (20)

Something you might expect: Crowley drives a Tesla and is awaiting completion of a €1.4 million zero emissions electric conversion of a Lamborghini Countach.

Something that might surprise: Crowley’s grandfather was arrested in west Cork in 1916 and jailed in Frongoch prison with Michael Collins “and a few other local lads”. In 2001, a statue of Collins was part funded by the family and unveiled by Liam Neeson a year later.