Visitors to Frederik W. Mowinckel’s Victorian house in the London neighbourhood of Chelsea are treated to an exotic winter sight: a 15ft-high banana plant flourishing on an outdoor terrace. And perhaps more exotic than the plant itself is the coating on the wall behind it: a white paint that has been created to mimic perfectly the self-cleaning surface layer of the lotus leaf, and to reflect maximum daylight. The banana plant isn’t the only beneficiary, says Mowinckel. The paint never loses shine, reflecting light back into the house and cutting down on the need for artificial lighting.
Although the building dates from 1850, Norwegian-born Mowinckel has redesigned it as a model of how to eco-proof a traditional family home in the middle of a major city. And yet inside, except for a touch-screen panel on a front wall, the building bears no obvious traces of its conversion.
“My wife Louise didn’t want something that looked like an eco-house – she wanted a beautiful house,” says Mowinckel, director of Turquoise International, a specialist merchant bank that supports clean energy companies in the early stages of their development. He ushers me into a series of elegant interiors where off-white walls provide backdrops for 19th-century Norwegian paintings and objects made by local designers on the nearby King’s Road. “Louise did the aesthetics,” he says. “I did the technical bits, behind the walls.”
Mowinckel leads me down into the lower-ground kitchen, refitted with natural stone and the latest energy-saving appliances. “The air is ventilated, replaced every two hours,” he says, and an even temperature is maintained throughout the house: “A heat recovery unit takes stale air and transfers the heat to fresh air. A Swedish company makes the system and the unit is built in Norway.
“Underfloor heating can be a big energy saver. If your feet are warm, you can have a room at two degrees lower. We use half as much energy as the previous owners and our utility company [Good Energy] is supplied only from renewable energy.” Then there’s insulation, a simple addition that Mowinckel says is overlooked in most home refurbishments. “In London they normally don’t require you to insulate. But we have to do this in Norway, seal a house in order to control what goes in and what goes out.”
He rifles through a cabinet as he offers me an espresso. Mowinckel, whose family imported coffee to Norway until the 1960s, comes from a Bergen-based family of merchants and shipowners. “We came to Norway from Germany in the 1700s,” he says, pulling out a Mowinckel’s Coffee container. “We still use the old Mowinckel’s Coffee tin to store coffee.”
Mowinckel credits a conversation with an avid conservationist on a flight to Chicago in 2002 for introducing him to the clean energy sector. He had built up factories in Norway in the 1990s, selling building materials, products and technology to Asia. “Most industries trade the other way. I took the opposite route of most exporters and sold to Asia. Like most Scandinavians, I had a respect for nature. But it was only in 2005 that I started investing exclusively in environmental businesses.”
Through Turquoise International, he advises clean energy companies on fundraising, mergers and acquisitions. “It operates like an old-fashioned merchant bank, but focuses on energy and the environment only. I’m constantly surprised by how many in the financial world are still climate-change deniers. They think it’s silly. But do you think future generations can afford to let us wait?” says Mowinckel, who has also nurtured wave and tidal energy companies in Scotland. “There are infinite alternative resources and we have to find a way to harvest them.”
In his house, Mowinckel has put to use another local natural resource: rain. “We harvest rainwater and use it for all indoor plumbing,” he says. “The world is facing a fresh water crisis. So why do we use drinking water to flush toilets? Why not use rainwater instead? We collect rainwater, filter it and run it through separate plumbing back into the house. In big cities, sewage systems are flooded during heavy rain. I can take up to 2,800 litres into my tank [underneath the terrace] rather than sending it into the sewage processing system. It’s a simple and inexpensive way of helping to solve a big environmental problem in urban areas.”
Solar thermal units are installed across the roof to heat the water. “We have 16 vacuum tubes that concentrate the heat from the sun,” says Mowinckel. “They run on daylight, heat up the water to 60 degrees, and can still do the job on a rainy day.”
Mowinckel walks upstairs past a home office where an antique wall-map charts his wife’s Cape Verdean-American roots. On the third floor, we reach the heart of the house: a technical room devoted to both high- and low-tech home energy-saving measures. There are carefully labelled pipes that monitor air intake next to an array of dials. “It’s a smart house. I can control and programme light circuits and I can even control the electrical sockets,” says Mowinckel.
We head back down to the sitting room to talk about Mowinckel’s other passion: saving Norwegian wild salmon from what he describes as its greatest threat: industrial salmon farming.
“Farmed salmon grow in crowded open pens in the sea. They’re often infected with lice and disease. I never touch the stuff. Infections, medications and waste escape straight into the sea. The wild salmon don’t have a chance,” says Mowinckel, who is helping to found a non-profit organisation called SalmonCamera from the family office in Bergen to raise awareness of the environmental impact of salmon farming worldwide.
“Every industrialist knows that if you own a factory, you have to account for everything that goes in and comes out,” he says. “You can’t just emit waste into the air and sea. So why aren’t the rules the same for fish farming as for other industries?”
Mowinckel’s family founded one of the first salmon farming companies, called Mowie, in Norway, so how does he feel about his connection to the industry? “Two things,” he replies. “First, we started out in 1969 with small family farms so could control these well. Second, the problem now is the industrial size and sheer numbers of these fish farms. They’re everywhere along the western and northern coasts of Norway and the impact on the natural salmon is calamitous.”
So what’s the solution? “Closed fish-pens are one way to stop filth and infection and stray fish flowing out into natural salmon territories. Another is putting in much stricter regulations,” says Mowinckel, who blames cosy ties between industry and government for being a barrier to reform of salmon farming.
We return to the subject of clean technology. With parts of the clean energy sector under pressure and even going bust, is it tougher to find investors? And in the current crisis, won’t the push for growth trump calls for green and clean? “Governments keep shifting the goalposts, but we have to move beyond complaining,” says Mowinckel, who is also a member of the TEDGlobal brain-trust, the advisory board for the TEDGlobal conference.
He points out that eco-investing, like home eco-proofing, has not yet gone mainstream. “Investors in this are still pioneers. Most of what we do is risky and long-term. But if the financial world doesn’t act who will? … I’ve put everything I ever owned or made into this because it’s the right thing to do. And in the end, I believe it will all pay off.”
Back outside, where the banana plant – and its painted backdrop – brighten up the day, the Norwegian self-styled “eco-industrialist” notes that simple energy-saving measures, such as the white paint, aren’t altogether new. “We did some research and discovered that the Victorians also painted these walls white for maximum light. The self-cleaning lotus leaf paint is just a modern improvement. We have to remember that nature has it all worked out.”
Painting of Bergen Harbour: “This painting, from 1888, is by the artist Hjalmar Johnssen. It’s the view from my great-grandfather’s office,” says Mowinckel, whose Bergen-based family includes a great, great-uncle who was prime minister and a great aunt who was Norway’s first female theatre director: “That was Tante Agnes. She was so radical that the drawing of her in the Oslo Theatre Café is painted in red, not black like the others. I guess going against the tide runs in the family.”