To finance a fair and equitable transition, leaders at COP26 referred to a low-carbon economy requiring ‘justice at its core’. Sixteen central governments signed up to support the conditions for a just transition internationally. They recognized that the effects of climate change disproportionately affect those in poverty and that the transition to net zero will affect those in sectors, cities and regions relying on carbon-intensive industries.
In this episode, Mathias speaks with Grace Park-Bradbury, General Manager-West and Head of Strategic Initiatives for climate justice company, BlocPower. Together they discuss topics including decarbonizing city buildings, renewable energy in developing economies and the importance of improving the energy transition to all types of communities through just and equitable finance. They also reflect on how the transition may bring greater prosperity and opportunity to the US market with its Build Back Better initiative.
MATHIAS STECK Hello and welcome to the 11th series of the DNV Talks Energy podcast, where we focus on the key topics discussed recently at COP26. I’m your host, Mathias Steck. The COP26 Energy Transition Council has agreed that a rapid and just transition to clean power is vital to meet the Paris Agreement. It found that the transition offers huge opportunities for jobs and growth, cleaner air and improved public health. So, what is needed from investors, policymakers, developers and energy companies to ensure an accelerated, affordable and just transition?
Joining me to discuss this topic is Grace Park-Bradbury, General Manager-West and Head of Strategic Initiatives for BlocPower, based in San Fransisco. Since BlocPower’s founding in 2014, the company has retrofitted more than 1,000 buildings in disadvantaged communities in New York City, with projects underway in 24 other cities. In this episode, we discuss what the concept of a just transition means and the role of all stakeholders in making it a reality. We hope you enjoy the episode.
Thank you for joining me today, Grace. Could you start by giving us a brief introduction to your role at BlocPower and what the company focuses on?
GRACE PARK-BRADBURY Thank you for having me. I’ve been working in climate tech for the past almost 15 years, and in energy markets in residential solar. We’ve all heard for many years, of course, that we have a climate issue, a challenge, and it’s been interesting to see, over the past 15, 20 years, how slow and underwhelming the response has been. We are seeing quite a bit more uptake in terms of the response and this is happening in a really significant way, in partnership with both government and the corporate sector. So, my background, being in climate, I am just thrilled to find a company like BlocPower, which is one of the few climate justice companies that I found in the space that brings together two important, progressive values that I hold dearly, one being climate, and the other, of course, is justice. Especially here in America, but in many parts of the world, the past few years through the pandemic, through George Floyd here, we’ve really come to a kind of a place of national reckoning where there’s more of an understanding of the systemic challenges facing our communities of colour, the racism embedded in the very language and structures of our government. So, to be at a company like BlocPower, where we focus both on climate and justice, has been extremely gratifying and I appreciate my journey here very much. BlocPower’s mission is to bring smarter, greener, healthier buildings to all. Donnel Baird, our CEO, has a vision that is full of righteous urgency. He has his own very compelling back story, of course. You may know he grew up in some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Brooklyn, New York. They heated their family home with their gas stove, which we know is pretty dangerous. You can die of carbon monoxide poisoning. But that’s the reality of how he experienced the inequities of how we allow some families to live. And there are many families that don’t ever have to think about things like that. But for Donnel, growing up in that environment really showed him first-hand how the reality is for many of the rest of us. And what Donnel has brought is that moral outrage and clarity to this project here we have at BlocPower, where we are bringing that equity, that urgency, that electrification power to our homes and buildings. We are starting with those communities where they send their children to schools where their oil boilers send polluted air into the school cafeteria and cause asthma attacks. We are working with families who live near freeways, breathing in polluted air, and who therefore have higher incidences of heart disease and cancer. These are not new items, but they are known concepts to the neighbours we’re talking to in the communities we work with. Because we are working to deploy these technologies to the communities that are in need and deserving of change the most.
MATHIAS STECK Many thanks, Grace. We are going to talk a lot today on the topic of ensuring a just transition. And for the benefit of our listeners, can you tell us what this means to you?
GRACE PARK-BRADBURY So, when we talk about the transition in technologies, we typically look at an adoption curve, a typical bell curve like the Roberts adoption curve where you start with the early adopters, folks that are both technologically and financially able to take advantage of the newest technologies. You then have the majority in the middle that eventually adopts the technology, both because of familiarity as well as cost coming down. And then you have folks at the tail-end, inverse to the early adopters, that are the laggards. That is typically how technologies are adopted overall, and that is also the case for clean energy technologies today. What that’s done, however, is by using the market mechanism of the adoption curve, you end up leaving these technologies, these much-needed technologies, unavailable or not adopted by those folks that are least able to withstand not taking advantage of that. So, the best example I have here is in residential solar, where it’s great that any and all residential solar is, frankly, great. But what’s happened, when you’ve had the early adopters, when you’ve had the upper-middle class and wealthy folks take advantage of residential solar first and foremost, is that you are leaving the balance of the folks, the folks who do not have the high credit scores, the folks who do not own their homes, who do not have the roof quality to support solar, you’re leaving to these folks the system costs that have to be shouldered by the rest of the folks who have to keep the grid up and running. And so, that is what happens when you lead with a market-first approach. You have this imbalance and a reinforcing of the inequities in our system. And that’s what BlocPower is working to address head on, and promote a just transition. What a just transition is demanding is the idea that we move away from a fossil fueled world to a carbon-free world. And how do we do that without reinforcing those injustices? How do we right some of these wrongs by leading with the folks that we have historically left to the end?
MATHIAS STECK Yes. So, at COP26, did you see anything that gave you confidence that we will indeed see an accelerated transition that is just and equitable?
GRACE PARK-BRADBURY I mentioned before, we’ve been hearing about climate for a generation-plus now. And I do think now, a couple of decades later, we are now at a critical mass of folks who are taking this seriously. I think for many of us, COP26 was not the height of what we had hoped for, but I also think it’s important to level set, that it’s an important setting for public commitments and vision. The hard work of actually transitioning everybody over will take place, we believe, in more localized settings. We at BlocPower think that this is going to be in cities and in neighbourhoods. And in cities and in neighbourhoods is also where you have the very localized expression of environmental justice, so it’s a very much more clear blueprint for how you need to address this. You have power plants next to poor neighbourhoods and not wealthy ones. You have certain neighbourhoods, often black and brown, next to highways. This is where the carbon is embedded in our buildings. This is where the transition will have to actually be executed on a building-by-building level. So, COP26 was both inspirational and also a let-down, but that may also be beside the point. We have a lot of work to be done, and that will be done on the ground level, we believe, again in cities, in neighbourhoods, in communities.
MATHIAS STECK COP26 confirmed that a large amount of enablement capital will be key to phasing out high-carbon economies and not leaving affected workers or communities behind. How will developed countries need to financially support the net zero transition in developing economies?
GRACE PARK-BRADBURY Surprisingly enough, at least from an electrification standpoint, which is again where our company operates, we’re looking to take existing buildings and transition all the heating, water heating, cooling, cooking, all the appliances, and transfer their fuel source to electricity. As a number of papers published this year and a lot of thinktanks, including Rewiring America, have shown, electrifying alone will give us a huge lead in terms of cutting our carbon by 50%, given how much more efficient that technology is. It speaks to the efficiencies of production, the technology itself, which is just that much more efficient than burning something that’s literally dug up from the ground in your building envelope. Electrifying alone will bring down carbon emissions by 50% for even developing countries. Many heating and cooling apparatuses have been electrified. Believe it or not, a lot of the developments that have happened in the last 20 years have been outside of the US, in high-rises and in dense housing in Asia and Central America. I had a friend actually who was recently in Panama City. And he was Facetiming with me and he showed me all the high-rises that have air source heat pumps, electrified heating and cooling. That’s what this appliance is. It literally acts like an air-conditioner like many of us know, taking the heat in your building, condensing it, cooling it and sending it outside, and in the winter, taking the heat in the atmosphere, condensing it, bringing it inside. So, I think in some ways, the answer is again on the ground. People are already using electrified technologies because it’s actually the cheaper way to build new construction. Rather than having a parallel gas infrastructure build for a home or a building, it is just easier and cheaper if you start with just the one. And so, in many developing countries, you’re already seeing a lot of that infrastructure that’s available for electrified technologies, because they’re leading with electrified appliances first. I think in order to really bring them the next level, the distributed solar, the other technologies we need to bring and disseminate more in developing countries, it is low-cost capital in the end. It doesn’t have to be philanthropic solely. It’s not just money that we pour into poorer countries, but it’s really like a Marshall Plan for the rest of the world, low-interest, low-cost capital that we can do here in wealthier countries. Wealthy countries benefit from moving more capital effectively. That’s what our financial markets are optimized for. And if it’s done at a low cost, and for consumers in a low- or zero-down option, it really does unleash a lot of the local investment in communities and the local investment in the ecosystem of workers that supply this work. It really speaks to the floodgates of capital that can course through our economy in very favourable ways. And so, what defines a First World country versus a Third World country or a Global North versus a Global South country is this access to capital. And that’s what we need to bring to bear for many of the developing countries as well.
MATHIAS STECK Thanks, Grace. That was fascinating, to hear about the effect of the energy transition on communities. Let’s turn now on the broader issue of loss and damage, including in the developing worlds. Do you think this key issue was progressed enough at COP26? And what more needs to be done in this important area, in your view?
GRACE PARK-BRADBURY I don’t know how easy it is for any of us to walk in another’s shoes effectively, to understand the significance and the impact of living in a polluted environment or neighbourhood that is exposed to extreme temperature, both heat and cold. I think that’s again very much lived in the grassroots experience that’s from the neighbourhoods where folks live and work and support each other and who are helping each other withstand some of the extremes, the ravages of ongoing climate change. I don’t know where and how it’s landed with everybody, but I do think you’ll see the proof when we see the capital flow. And there are some encouraging signs that we are close to a tipping point where there will no longer be a social licence to ignore this. We’re going to continue to see this at our own borders. We will continue to see this. This is climate affecting migration patterns across countries. And I think there will be more moral authority that is deprived from the ongoing extraction of fossil fuels. We will no longer have the cover and the social licence to continue to do that. We’re going to have to take some of those investments in fossil fuel extraction and production and dissemination, take those subsidies, take those structures, and that flow is going to have to be redirected towards those communities where we are already bearing the brunt of extreme climate. I do think that there is an emerging consensus there and I do believe we are close to a tipping point, when the capital will no longer be able to flow the way it has.
MATHIAS STECK We have talked about developing countries and the disparity between cost and effect of climate change. I am keen to look more broadly now at the risks and opportunities presented by the energy transition for those all around the world on low-moderate incomes. How can we ensure that the transition to a low carbon economy addresses fuel poverty and ensures universal access to clean energy?
GRACE PARK-BRADBURY I think that’s where electrification and electrified technologies can be so powerful. Once you’ve converted everything to electricity and once we are able to then provide free or low-cost solar globally, you are giving folks access to free or low-cost energy. From there, you don’t have to go buy the gas, the propane, the coal, the wood, you don’t have to burn things, because now the sun can deliver its power to you free, or more freely. I think that would be a much better way to address the ongoing energy burden to provide folks an ongoing renewable energy source that’s clean and safe for their communities versus delivering this endless obligation of fuel subsidies or something that actually damages their health even as they’re able to then pay for their bills. You don’t need that infrastructure philanthropy. You are letting folks be more self-sufficient. This to me is the more holistic way to address fuel poverty and energy burden. It allows folks to inherently own the means of their own power production and power the rest of their lives through their electrified technologies. I think this is a more fundamental way to address our energy needs.
MATHIAS STECK The US Build Back Better plan, which has a major focus on tackling climate change, aims to create millions of good-paying jobs that provide workers with the choice to join a union and bargain collectively. Do you think the energy transition could also provide a major opportunity to create greater prosperity?
GRACE PARK-BRADBURY Absolutely. This is a huge thesis behind BlocPower. Donnel, again, very much believes that we need to address communities more holistically. It is electrifying people’s homes and businesses, collecting that carbon reduction and declaring success. It’s also addressing the greater needs of the community. When you are talking about climate transition, if it’s done poorly, as we’ve discussed with the market-based adoption approach, what you’ll do is you’ll have the risk of replacing relatively well-paying fossil fuel jobs with lower-paying clean energy jobs. When you do that, and again you’ve seen that in residential solar, you’re not bringing the broader benefits of the new clean energy economy to the broader community. You’re not addressing the holistic needs of the folks that live in them with health, with wealth, with durable employment opportunities. It’s all of the above. When you do not address the holistic picture, you take the risk of cutting this effort off below the knees. It doesn’t address what people really need, which is a paycheque that can feed their families, gives them hopes and plans for the future, sets them up for a good education and beyond. So, workforce is absolutely integral to how we need to address climate. We need to bring these benefits and provide families a source of ways to build upon their efforts, even as they also address and build upon their good health. And we’re doing this through workforce development through Civilian Climate Corps. And we are co-opting some aspects of the market-based approach, but we’re also addressing those places where that fails. In many places, in order to get solar, you have to have a credit score that qualifies you for that. But we are seeing models that have emerged, like community solar, as well as other places that are addressing more directly the idea that it can’t just be an asset that is reserved for the upper-middle class and the wealthy. And so, this will take a pretty significant investment of public dollars. It is meant to address, again, historical wrongs through infrastructure, which is explicitly a goal of President Biden and Build Back Better. And I think it’s going to be a huge way to address, again, energy burden, as you mentioned before, and give folks a durable way to continue to power their lives, even as they lower the energy costs, see their neighbours work on their own homes in good, technically challenging growth opportunities for their growth. And we need to lead with these folks first. So, addressing individuals in these communities and addressing the Civilian Climate Corps through Wi-Fi, digital connectivity, through electrification, we’re going to have outsize returns on carbon, outsize returns on health from a societal standpoint. And of course, there’s always, again, the moral urgency that drives this action. We are going to be able to redress historical wrongs through this new climate transition. And that’s a powerful and compelling reason to act. This is a way to acknowledge that not everyone in this country, probably the world over, has the same opportunities when they start, that many of us bear the strains of racism and anti-blackness. And so, addressing through the mechanism of infrastructure investment and leading with low- and moderate-income communities first, we’re going to have outsize benefits. And we will be able to bring that moral clarity of this historical injustice into the conversation.
MATHIAS STECK We have many people employed around the world in carbon-intensive industries. And COP placed, as you also emphasized, a major focus on shifting investments away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. So, what measures can be taken to limit the impact of this energy transition on those people working in carbon-intensive industries?
GRACE PARK-BRADBURY I think one of the beauties of the clean energy transition is that so much of it is distributed. You do have large wind and solar farms and hopefully other big capital investments in geothermal, potentially nuclear, but a lot of what is happening is locally sited, distributed clean energy. This doesn’t mean a windmill in everyone’s back yard, but certainly solar and batteries are part of this. And electrification itself is not a clean energy source, but it does rely on increasingly clean energy sources throughout the electrical grid. I think what people find is that when you are able to work in your community, it is extremely powerful, not just in the commute and your time away from family, but you are able to build again the health and wealth and wellbeing of your neighbours. And that’s what we’re seeing here in Oakland, California. We are working with a tremendous ecosystem of partners where, rather than sending folks out to a far-off oilfield or refinery, people are working in their neighbours’ homes. We’re seeing this with some of our partners here in Oakland. Revalue, led by Mark Hall, who has worked with the city of Oakland in the past, is doing the hard work of building the ecosystem of local minority and women-owned contractors to employ local workers, and educating friends and neighbours to the benefits of electrification. He’s helped work with folks like Dahlia Moodie from ECO Options, a black, woman-owned construction contracting firm, who, despite the challenges of working with an emerging workforce, folks that don’t make all the right decisions initially because they’re just training up, she is committed to the transition. And she will work with folks who do not have the background but who have been under- and unemployed for too long, so that they can contribute meaningfully to their own communities. Folks like Ms Margaret Gordon from the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, who has been fighting her whole life to redress the wrongs in West Oakland, which, for those of you who don’t know, is bounded on four sides by highways and sits right next to the Port of Oakland, breathing in some of the worst air quality in the Bay area. She knows deeply the injustice that her community has faced over the generations. And so, if we, through our actions, can bring in air-purifying, electrified technologies to her friends and neighbours, she is leading the vanguard of the conversation against environmental injustice, and electrification. If you think about it, going back to how we need to treat people overall, their jobs, their health, their wellbeing, we spend 80% to 90% of our time indoors. The quality of the air we breathe inside our homes is extremely meaningful to our overall health and wellbeing. I think a lot of workers want this transition. They don’t want to be breathing in those fumes. They don’t want to be supplying these things to their families. They are looking for paths out of fossil fuel industries that also retains their quality of life. As long as we keep the skill level, the complexity of these efforts, our ability to really promote and support our local communities, people are hungry for the opportunity to improve their entire communities, and not just cash that paycheque. We need to preserve the integrity, the viability, the technical skill level of some of these jobs so that folks can continue to earn those living-wage, high-road jobs. But it’s not an impossibility. It’s just a shortage of imagination.
MATHIAS STECK Yes, thank you, Grace, for these really interesting insights and promising initiatives. I want to put one final question to you before we finish our discussion today. With COP now over and delegates back in their day jobs, how do we ensure that progress made on ensuring a just transition isn’t lost or pushed down the pecking order?
GRACE PARK-BRADBURY I do think that in some ways, we have made sufficient public commitments that completely ignoring it, would not be an option. I am concerned, however, that things might get lost in bureaucracy, or some of the moral clarity that drives the action now will be lost. We need to act quickly and with urgency at the local level, at the city level, to deploy this capital into projects. Once that money starts flowing to those buildings, it will continue and it will expand, I have no doubt. The just transition is a concept, and a concept only, until that capital is deployed and we have people working in their friends’ and neighbours’ homes, remediating, electrifying, otherwise bringing clean energy technologies to those friends and neighbours. That money needs to start flowing, and perfect should absolutely not be the enemy of good here. We need to get that money out. It also involves investing in programmes and local knowledge. There are folks that have been doing this great work, the fight against environmental injustice, the fight for communities for decades, for generations. We need to tap that local knowledge and expertise to have the capital flow to the communities that need it most, to get acting as quickly as possible. When your child is the one with chronic asthma, you’re not waiting for next month to fix things. You want to fix it now. We need to bring that sense of owned and shared urgency to the work we do here. It’s really not about starting from scratch. It’s about tapping the veins, the existing veins of power and knowledge and care and trust that we have in our local communities, and empowering those folks who know what they’re doing to make the progress that they need to make. I think that’s how we will need to continue to see the progress from COP. I think that’s how we will strengthen and ensure through lines of top-level government commitments down to the actual impact we need to have in people’s lives, to deliver the air quality, the carbon reduction, the protection from extreme heat and cold. That’s how we will ensure that the just transition is not lost, to see in our communities that need to face the extremes the first to address historical wrongs and injustices. We need to see that money flow through to the communities that we’ve been working with for a long time, to make sure that this is the right follow-on from COP. And that’s how we will ensure a just transition.
MATHIAS STECK Thank you so much for talking to me today and taking the time, Grace. It was a real pleasure to speak with you.
Thanks for tuning in to this week’s episode. It was fascinating to hear Grace talk about how a just transition benefits not only a low-carbon future but also the people whose lives and health are improved as a result. Join us next time, where we will focus on the outlook for renewables and the role of technology, policy including what was achieved at COP26, and investment, in achieving net zero. To hear more podcasts in the series, please visit dnv.com/talksenergy.