The company trying to 'turn buildings into Teslas'
Happy Tuesday, Protocol Climate pals! Today, we’re chatting with Donnel Baird, the founder of BlocPower, about why climate tech and climate justice are linked, what drives critical mineral innovation and a huge battery deal. Consider it the tomato, basil and mozzarella of a climate Caprese sandwich. Enjoy!
The Amazon of home electrification
“Turning buildings into Teslas” is a lofty goal, but that's exactly Donnel Baird's mission. The CEO and founder of BlocPower has created a company that's working to get buildings across the U.S. off of fossil fuel-powered heating and cooling systems and onto electric heat pumps and solar panels.
But Baird wants to ensure those Tesla-esque buildings aren’t just available to the rich: BlocPower’s decarbonization mission is starting in low-income communities. Environmental justice is at the core of the Brooklyn-based startup’s business, and for Baird, that focus isn’t just about doing what’s right: It’s also good business. BlocPower has raised over $100 million to green urban buildings, including a $5.5 million grant from the Bezos Earth Fund and $30 million from Microsoft.
Even though it’s part of the company’s slogan, Tesla might not be the right comparison for BlocPower. The electric cars are a classic example of the “green premium”: expensive, and still out of reach for most people. By contrast, Baird told Protocol that his goal is for BlocPower to be the Walmart or Amazon of clean tech, as in he wants to drive costs down and make electrification affordable “for every American.”
He sat down with Protocol to talk about the future of sustainable homes, what’s needed to electrify the country at scale and the tech industry’s role in bringing about true climate justice.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Electrical retrofits are expensive, and the lowest-income homeowners are likely to be left behind in the transition. How do we deal with that?
I think the [Inflation Reduction Act] bill was written in a way that provides more capital to low-income households. Just like the student loan policy that came out recently, households over a certain income level won’t be able to access the rebates. There’s provisions in the home electrification bill that are similar. So families that have the lowest income are the ones getting the highest rebates. That’s just on the equipment side.
On the labor side, we can create hundreds of thousands of jobs for low-income and working families to electrify and decarbonize buildings. And by training and hiring these new low- and moderate-income workers, we’re increasing the labor supply, which will reduce the cost of electrification overall across the entire industry. And so the policy is going to bend the entire cost curve of home electrification.
Energy costs are a much higher percentage of overall income in a low-income household, so when you reduce energy costs, that matters more financially to low-income customers. I would expect that there would be increased demand for home electrification, as long as it’s affordable, which is our job at BlocPower to make sure that all this stuff is affordable for low-income people. There should be increased demand among low-income consumers, because they stand to benefit the most.
Global supply chain issues have been affecting everything, including heat pump parts. Can you talk a little about this, and what the challenges are specifically?
We’ve seen delays in terms of heat pumps being shipped, delivered and installed. While a lot of firms are Japanese, a lot of the firms we partner with like Daycon, Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, do have manufacturing facilities in the United States. Mitsubishi North America is headquartered in Georgia, and they have a new heat pump facility in New Jersey. Daycon has a factory in Texas.
So when you look at President Biden and what the senators did in terms of the military Defense Production Act, the R&D money in the Chips bill and the manufacturing dollars in the IRA, we are going to see a very robust investment in domestic manufacturing of electric vehicles, EV batteries and charging stations. Europe is going to be relying on us in many ways to produce heat pumps at scale so we can supply heat pumps to Europe in kind of a Marshall Plan 2.0.
For BlocPower to achieve its goal of decarbonizing American homes requires a confluence of many things all working out: policy alignment, political action and technology and supply chain issues, as well as the cooperation and buy-in of private investors and American homeowners themselves. Which of these areas is the biggest challenge, and why?
It depends on what day you’re asking [laughs]. I would say labor supply, or skilled workers who can do electrical work, plumbing and deal with the removal of hazardous materials like lead and asbestos from folks’ basements. Removing these materials, wiring buildings and installing all-electric heating systems requires a lot of green-collar workers. And right now America has a shortage of skilled construction workers of any kind, which is why millennials can’t buy homes: because there’s just not enough skilled workers to put up the houses.
That labor supply is a big problem, but what a massive opportunity. As someone from a low-income community who is very concerned about employment opportunities and wealth-building for low-income families, I know that there are millions of Americans that we can train and hire to solve this labor crisis and create the labor pool that’s going to lower prices for everyone.
Read the full story here.— Michelle Ma
What actually drives mining innovation
Critical minerals are, well, critical to decarbonizing the world’s economy. Getting enough of them, in ways that are as environmentally and human rights-friendly as possible, is high on the global priority list. For that, we’re going to need a bit more innovation. New research is out that explores what’s driven innovation in mining and refining over the first 15 years of this century, and it could offer clues for what governments need to do going forward.
The race for mining innovation is already heating up. The world has been getting serious about mining materials needed for climate tech for a while now. To get at just how serious, researchers looked at mining-related patents in a handful of countries (China, the U.S., Australia and South Africa) and regions (we’re looking at you, Europe and Latin America, as well as “others”) from 2001 to 2016.
- The findings, published in the September edition of Resources Policy, show an increase in mining patents tied to climate tech over that time.
- There’s a noticeable change in the type of patents, though. In 2001, patents tied to the mining process itself were the biggest chunk. By 2016 — the year after the Paris Agreement was inked — patents tied to processing metals made up the bulk of the 16,000 or so mining-related patents filed around the globe.
- The price of metals correlates strongly with the uptick in patents. So, too, does the Paris Agreement: From 2015 to 2016, there was a major jump in patent applications in the climate tech mineral world.
What drives innovation isn’t the same around the world. We’re talking different strokes for different folks, but it’s companies filing patents that could help save the world (and maybe make them rich). Relatable.
- In China, the sheer scale of R&D funding is largely responsible for the increase in patents.
- In the U.S., the rise in patents tracked metal prices, though there’s a very noticeable Paris Agreement bump too.
- Generally, regions where natural resources are economic drivers — Latin America and Australia, for example — saw a higher number of patents filed as mineral prices rose. Basically, in the rush to cash in on high prices, innovation flourished.
- Then there are quirky countries like Japan and South Africa, where the scale of R&D budgets have shrunk even as they’ve targeted the mining industry more broadly.
The climate crisis could supercharge mining innovation. The interest in critical minerals has positively exploded this year. There are a number of reasons, and none of them show any sign of disappearing soon.
- Companies have rolled out more electric vehicles that require cobalt, nickel and other materials for batteries. Automakers have set goals to go all-electric, and states and governments around the world are pushing for that too.
- The Inflation Reduction Act includes incentives for mining in the U.S., which could spur more innovation. Permitting reform is on Congress’ radar for this fall, and depending on how that shakes out, it could further alter the mining and refining landscape.
- Then there are geopolitics: China currently controls most of the critical mineral supply, and U.S. and allied officials are getting increasingly antsy for that to not be the case. That could mean still more incentives and R&D funds are on the way.
In other words, the trends in patents and innovation around the minerals needed for climate tech we’ve seen to date could look like a flat line by the end of this decade.
— Brian Kahn
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One big number: $4.4 billion
The summer of battery love between battery suppliers and automakers is going out with a bang.
On Monday, Honda and the Korean battery giant LG Energy Solution announced plans for a $4.4 billion electric vehicle battery factory in an unspecified location in Ohio. It’s slated to begin mass production for Honda EVs by mid-decade. Even though Honda has yet to roll out a mass-market EV option in the U.S., the Japanese automaker has committed to making the full switch to electric by 2040, and is planning to release 30 EVs by 2030.
If this gives you a sense of déjà vu, you’re not alone. Battery manufacturers and automakers have been teaming up all year. To wit:
- GM has partnered with LG to build several battery plants, to the tune of $7 billion.
- Not to be left out of the club, Stellantis — the parent company of Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and other brands — also has plans with LG for a battery facility in Ontario, Canada, in addition to its partnership with Samsung for an Indiana plant. The Ontario plant is a $4.1 billion investment while the Indiana plant will come in at more than $2.5 billion.
- Ford is building multiple plants in Kentucky and Tennessee with the Korean company SK Innovation. All told, the two companies will invest $11.4 billion.
- Just last week, long-time partners Tesla and Panasonic were reportedly in talks for another U.S. battery factory, likely in Oklahoma, that would cost roughly $4 billion.
Following through on all these billions in deals will define whether automakers are able to pivot from gas-powered vehicles to battery-powered ones. But these investments alone aren’t enough. Automakers like Ford and GM have also started to make a series of deals to secure the raw materials needed to make the electrified future a reality. So even if the summer of battery love is almost over, battery manufacturer-automaker romance could be in the air this fall, too.
— Lisa Martine Jenkins
Google Flights is missing a key climate killer in its carbon calculation. (Say that five times fast.) The company quietly removed contrails from its flight climate calculator. But it has plans to add contrails back, and is working “on soon-to-be-published research.”
China’s solar industry has a hoarding problem, and it’s creating a huge mess for the world. The Chinese government issued a warning telling manufacturers of key solar panel components to knock it off with the hoarding or face severe penalties.
California’s plan to kill the gas-powered car isn’t a slam dunk. There’s a lot that could go wrong between now and 2035, from fickle car buyers to electric vehicle prices staying high.
Tesla is big mad at Louisiana. The EV automaker sued the state government and an auto dealer association, arguing a law banning companies from selling vehicles directly to customers is “protectionist, anticompetitive, and inefficient.”
The fight over deep-sea mining is just getting started — and it’s already ugly. From regulators booking luxury cars to companies working the refs and getting secret data, this story really has it all.
Fusion might finally be a few years away. Not that there aren’t hurdles that remain between harnessing the energy of the sun, but nuclear fusion companies and research teams are making headway, and serious money is pouring into the field.
Avocados are growing in the U.K. OK, who had a side of fresh guac with bangers and mash on their weird climate change bingo card?
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