Experts Only Episode 18: My Conversation with David Gabrielson of PACENation

This week we speak with David Gabrielson of PACE Nation and take a deep dive into understanding the growth of PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy), a finance tool that is a private-public partnership allowing for the cost of energy saving improvements to be spread out over a length of time. David introduces us to PACE and the industry that is emerging alongside it.

A Background on Daniel Gabrielson and the emergence of PACE

Jon Powers (JP): Today we’re gonna have not our traditional episode. I know there are a lot of folks in the industry who are interested in PACE Financing, but really don’t understand how it truly works. We are joined today by PACE Nation’s David Gabrielson. David serves as the Executive Director and founded PACE Nation in 2010 when the idea of PACE was little more than an idea on a napkin.

David and I will talk about PACE, which is Property Assessed Clean Energy, which is a financing mechanism that enables low cost, long term funding for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and water conservation projects, for both residential and commercial. The PACE financing is repaid as an assessment on a property’s regular tax bill and is processed the same way that other local public benefit assessments are, like sidewalks and sewers. Those programs have been in place for decades. But a lot depends on local legislation.

PACE can be used for commercial, non-profit, and residential properties as we’ve mentioned. You can learn a lot more about PACE at PACE Nation’s Summit 2018, which will be out in Denver in March. We’re gonna actually be doing a live Podcast there at the site. Talking with some real PACE advocates. You can go to pacenation.org to learn more. David really provides us good insight on the history of PACE and where it’s going. Let’s get started.

From Local Government to PACENation

JP: David, thank you so much for joining us here at Experts Only Podcast. We’re gonna be exploring PACE 101 and help our listeners really understand the power of PACE and what it’s doing around the country. I wanted to first start off with your PACE story. What got you interested in PACE and launching PACENation?

DG: Sure Jon, and thanks so much for asking me to do this. My introduction to PACE was really kind of serendipitous. After working, or even while I was still working, in Municipal Finance as a Public Finance Banker based in New York, I was persuaded to run for a political office in my town, Bedford, New York. I had never ever thought of doing anything like that. Instead of saying no, I said yes. Then I won and got elected to the town Board. Bedford is a very sustainability minded community. We’re one of the few towns in New York that has a climate action plan, that’s part of our formal town master plan.

Our energy advisory panel came to us one day, and said, “Let’s start a PACE program.” I understood the finance side of it pretty quickly, because it’s based on a tool that local governments have used for a long time to finance things. I got the government side of it, because my clients had all been government folks, public finance, and I was working in government. I’ve always been an armchair environmentalist. So, those three three things kind of clicked. I don’t really know how I sort of became the board member that really dug into it, as we sought at grant money and tried to began developing a program but I think this is true of a lot of people. I used to do something else, and now I do PACE. It was really an idea that captivated and galvanized me.

JP: That drove you to launching PACE Nation, which has been very influential in helping to galvanize others around the country, to help move PACE forward at a policy level. Can you talk for a second about PACE Nation and what you do for your members?

DG: Yeah. Well, PACE Nation was utterly coincidentally founded by a guy who lives in the same town of Bedford New York. He had gone to a conference and heard one of the fathers of PACE, the guy who really came up with the idea, a guy named Cisco DeVries out in California. Jeff Tenenbaum heard Cisco talking about it, sought him out, and actually Jeff coined the acronym PACE. I guess there was some earlier acronym that wasn’t so good. Property Assessed Clean Energy, of course, is what the acronym is.

Jeff began evangelizing around PACE and talking to people about it, and set up a website that everyone went to. Originally it was called PACENow. We’re just going to refer to it as PACENation. We used to call ourself PACENow. The website was where everybody went to get a copy of the California Enabling Legislation, or some study that had been written about PACE or something PACE related. It was really a link site.

In late 2010, after I’d been trying to get PACE going in Bedford, we came up with some grant funding, and then PACENow hired me. I became the full time staffer at PACENow, PACENation. Let me say what we are, we’re really advocates for PACE. We have a pretty simple vision and that is that PACE financing is available to every building owner in America. We envision a day where every building owner in America would know what PACE was and understand it, and be able to make a decision about whether it was the right tool to use, to make the building more energy efficient.

As advocates for that, we provide through our website and newsletter and webinars, information and resources that further that vision, further that goal. We do a lot of one on one,talking with people. We’ve always been networkers. We’re kind of like the hub in a wheel with spokes that go out to lots of different stakeholders, that include state and local governments and other non-profits that are similarly mission oriented, at least in terms of environmental goals and economic development goals. And now a growing number private sector stakeholders that have seen an opportunity to provide services or finance to make PACE really work.

Then we’ve been conveners. We pull people together. The best example of that now is planning for our third national PACENation summit, which will be in Denver March 19th to 21st. It’s been a bigger success than we imagined when we first started planning it, my little team who knew nothing about how to put on a conference. It’s been a big success.

The story of PACE: Emerging from Berkeley

JP: Yeah, and for our listeners, we’re going to be at PACENation summit. You can find it at pacenationsummit.us/summit18. We’re actually going to do a podcast interview there, talking with some leaders in the industry about what’s going on in the space. We’ll be rolling that out here in a few episodes, so please listen.

David, that’s really helpful. I think PACE is not really a new concept, but it’s really caught fire in the last few years. For folks, just to give a little simple 101, as David said, property assessed clean energy is a financing mechanism that enables low cost, long term funding for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and water conservation, but it’s repaid through the assessment of the properties, regular tax bill.

So first off, where did that idea come from? Then two, more importantly, why has it just really begun to catch fire and we’re seeing it pop up all over the country now?

DG: Yeah, and first, let me say, Jon, we’re really excited that you’re going to be at the summit and doing that podcast. We’ve not done anything like that before. I think that the hopefully 500 or so people that come are really going to enjoy that. The state and local governments, for decades if not centuries, have used property tax assessments, an additional line item added to the property tax bill, to pay for improvements that benefit property owners, obviously, and meet a public purpose.

For most people, they’re familiar with sometimes a water or sewer assessment or a park district assessment or lighting district assessment, sidewalk assessment. The leap to PACE came, I think I mentioned Cisco DeVries earlier, who was working for the mayor of Berkeley, California and had a background in energy, and saw a neighborhood—this is the story as I heard it—a neighborhood in Berkeley, that came together and said, “Look, we’d really like to put these utility lines that are above ground, underground for a couple of reasons. For safety and for just to get unsightly power lines out of site.”

They voluntarily went to the city of Berkeley and said, “Could we pay for this with an assessment on our tax bill?” At the same time, Berkeley had a policy of encouraging people to put solar on their roofs. Cisco’s leap was to say, “Well how about if we came up with the money and people could put solar on their roofs and then pay back that investment over time with the property tax assessment?” In a perfect world, that has all sorts of advantages. One is that it’s not a direct impact on an individual person’s credit, it’s based on the value of the property and the equity in the property. Though, we want to make sure that every building owner has the means to pay this back. It is voluntary, so we assume they do.

The second thing is that property taxes and assessments, don’t get paid off when you sell your property. The improvement that you put in place transfers to the buyer of the property, and in this instance with PACE, so are the obligations. People don’t know how long they’re going to own a building. Sometimes what keeps them from doing something they’d might like to do is thinking, “Boy, I’m just going to benefit from this for two or three years, then I’m going to have to pay it off.”

The transferability is big. Property taxes and assessments that have been unpaid, that are in arrears are at the top of this stack for repayment. That makes it a very strong credit to those who might want to invest in these projects. They can be pretty sure that they’re going to get paid back. It’s also been a problem because quite frankly, the mortgage lenders don’t like that. It’s one of the things we’ve had to work on in the world of PACE. There are a couple of other reasons why the PACE mechanism is really an attractive one, but those are the primary ones.

JP: That’s really interesting. I think really good feedback on, especially the transferability. I want to get into the legislative piece and the financing in one second, but there’s R-PACE, right? Residential PACE and C-PACE, commercial PACE.

DG: That’s right.

The Success of Commercial Pace and Struggles with Residential

JP: Just quickly, what is the major difference and are you seeing one grow more rapidly than the other?

DG: Well it’s exactly the same mechanism. The difference is two completely different markets. The commercial PACE marketplace is relatively uncontroversial, totally uncontroversial. All this starts with state enabling legislation, to date, 34 states have adopted legislation that would allow building owners, in some instances, just commercial building owners, and some residential and commercial. Three or four states have allowed their local governments to offer PACE. We see commercial PACE programs now operating successfully, completing projects in, I’m going to say, 19 states and the District of Columbia. You can check all of this, whenever you want, on our website, www.pacenation.org.

One of the reasons that commercial PACE has been uncontroversial, is that building owners almost always receive the permission or the consent, we call it lender consent, of their existing mortgage lender if they have a mortgage lender. Those mortgage lenders, and consent has been granted by over 150 different lending institutions on close to 1,000 projects, because the lenders understand that the projects improve the value of their collateral. There’s a commercial arena, business people don’t generally do things frivolously. They weigh the pros and cons, the payoffs, the financial impact to their business or their operation or their property.

That’s an important part of it. Commercial projects too. If you think about it,a house is a house, and houses are big or small, but generally, the things that you would do to a house to make it more energy efficient involve, some of it’s envelope and upgrading a heating or cooling system, and proving it’s insulation. Commercial buildings vastly greater universe of architecture, and size, and use, and building materials. Commercial projects tend to be bigger, vastly bigger. We’ve seen commercial PACE projects up to $20-25 million. They’re much more engineering driven, systems related pumps and motors. They have a long sales cycle. Long time to get to yes.

That’s the commercial landscape. We have consistent entry. Our team is always working with groups in at least one or more states that would like to get PACE legislation passed. Just last year, made a couple of trips to Alaska to work with people from the state and Anchorage, and Fairbanks, and Juneau, who got commercial PACE legislation passed and now are using our resources and others to try to get a program started. We see constant entry on the commercial side.

Resi PACE, because it has been a bone of contention for the mortgage industry, and for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mortgage giants, and for their regulator, the federal housing finance agency. It’s been much harder to get resi PACE dispersed throughout the United States. It got a toe hold in California.

JP: Because of that consent?

DG: Yeah, back in 2010, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac basically said that they would not buy a mortgage with a PACE assessment on it. If your local bank, if you added a PACE project to your home, and your local mortgage lender tried to then sell that mortgage to Fannie or Freddie, Fannie and Freddie said they won’t buy it. They won’t consent to a pay assessment on a property that’s in their portfolio. There’s been a lot of concern about what impact that could have on homeowners.

It’s made a lot of states and local governments reluctant to move down the path of offering resi PACE. In California where it started, and where it got a toe hold that never got dislodged, PACE is now available to probably, I’m going to guess and say 80% of the population. All of the major metropolitan centers and populated counties in the state, there are a number of PACE programs operating, some operated by local governments, Placer county for example, Sonoma County.

They operate their own program, provide their own program administration, come up with their own funding for projects in most jurisdictions and an outside private, third party program administrator is authorized to offer funding to homeowners. To date, in California, I’m going to say 180,000-200,000 homes and bumping up on five billion dollars of financing over the last two or three years.

JP: Let’s talk about those program administrators. I think, for folks, we talked about the 34 states that have the legislation. Really what happens is each locality develops their own program and there are some differences across the programs. Can you talk about the role of that third party, or maybe the municipalities role in administering the program?

DG: Yeah. Let me start with the municipality role. Sonoma County, California was a real pioneer. Berkeley did a pilot, but then discontinued it for a while. Sonoma county developed their own program. They used county treasury funds to finance projects. They devoted staff. What does a program administrator do? A program administrator sets up all the paperwork and all of the procedures and make sure all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed to complete the project.

That involves making sure that the homeowner qualifies and that the financing is appropriate. That’s often defined in state law and that the project qualifies. The program administration basically completes the project. In the case of Sonoma county, they come up with the funding for it. At the other end of the spectrum, you could have a local government that says, “This is what we want, to offer this to our residents, but we don’t really have the bandwidth to do all of that stuff,” that I described that Sonoma county does. So, we will with authorize a third party to provide all of that program administration and the funding

We’ll put the assessment on our tax bill, when everything’s done correctly. When we collect that money from the homeowner, we will forward it to the appropriate party that’s receiving the money for the private party. The way things have evolved in California, most of the financing is provided by private sector, third party program administrators, raised by local governments to provide this service in their jurisdiction.

Making the Major Leagues: Securitization and Liquidity in Financial Markets

JP: Yeah, let’s talk about that a little bit. I think what’s really interesting about this space, is the growth on the finance side, PACE financing terms, can extend out to 30 years. It’s possible to really undertake deep, comprehensive retrofits, really energy savings and even renewable energy for customers affecting their bottom lines. It can cover 100% of project hard and soft costs, and you’ve got now companies like Greenworks taking these PACE financing programs. Actually, if I’m correct, Greenworks did about a $300 million securitization this year on some PACE loans, which is very, very forward leaning for the market. Talk about in that space, who are some of the folks that you see really leading and where do you see that 3rd party financing piece go?

DG: Okay, so on the resi PACE side, in California and Florida and trying to get a toe hold in Missouri, there are a number of third party program administrators: Renovate America has been operating the longest and has the largest share of all of the projects that have ever been done, because they’ve been operating the longest. They’re the ones that recently did a $300 million securitization. As they have built a portfolio themselves of, I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s well over a billion dollars.

They’ve built up that portfolio of completed homes. They’ve gone the way of all assets that build to a substantial amount, and they get bundled together, just as mortgages do or any other kind of receivable. They get securitized. The investment world, institutional investors, insurance companies and whatnot, which have long term obligations and therefore like long terms assets, good match for their portfolio.

JP: Important for that, just for our listeners that don’t understand. What that really means is, it’s bringing long term, but often cheaper capital. Cheaper capital to go into these projects, cheaper capital to help bring down the cost for both the transactions and the actual deal. It says a lot about the industry, that it’s getting to securitization.

DG: Right. That’s right. They’re providing liquidity, just like your local bank. I have a mortgage from my local bank here in Massachusetts, the Florence bank. They’re a small bank. They lent me money and don’t have to hold my mortgage forever. The bank can take my mortgage and sell it to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who will then bundle it up in a big package and sell it off to investors all over the world. That provides liquidity. It brings money into the local market. Your local government wouldn’t have the resources or the ability to do that, by and large.

It’s another thing that a private sector program administrators are bringing. These securities are now being rated a strong AA, I think by Kroll Bond Rating Service (KBRS) and by DBRS. We’re beginning to build a market. Now four or five billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but in the scheme of thing on the financial markets, it’s still very small. Jon, you alluded to this, we’ve seen interest rates begin to come down because the market is getting bigger and more liquid.

What does liquid mean? That means that if you’re an insurance company, you buy one of these PACE assets, you want to be able to go out and sell it tomorrow, just as you go out, buy a share of Apple stock today and sell it tomorrow at exactly what the market will bear. An investment you might make that you can’t necessarily get rid of tomorrow, because the market is so small won’t attract as high a price. That’s what I mean by the market is more liquid and transparent. As the market grows, we’ll continue to see interest rates decline.

JP: No, that’s great. First of all David, we’re limited on time. I appreciate the full view of this. It shows the growth of the industry, the way it’s matured, that it can get to securitization. Just briefly, I think one you’ll hear a lot about this at PACE Nation’s summit in Denver, the 19th to 21st, please make sure to sign up and attend if you can. Where do you see the landscape look like in the next five years?

DG: Let me do this, because I didn’t want to full stop at Renovate. There are several other parties that I want to give some shout outs too. Cisco DeVries, the father of PACE if you will, leads a company called Renew Financial and YGrene Energy Fund, is another and PACE funding and Dividend. There are a number of companies. If you’re out in California and you google PACE, you can come to our website and look them all up if you’re interested.

You also mentioned Greenworks. They’re on the commercial side, I want to give them a little shout out for a couple reasons. The founder, co founder of that company, was once my program grant provider at the Rockefeller Brothers fund. I went down and pitched to her on funding PACE Nation. We are still very largely foundation funded. She liked what she heard. A year later, she called me up and said, “David, you’re not going to believe this, but I am going to run the Connecticut PACE program with the Connecticut Green bank.”

Then a couple of years after building what was the most successful, I think, one of the most successful commercial PACE programs in the country, she went out and became an entrepreneur. They just completed their own securitization. It wasn’t $300 million, I think it was $75 million. It was rated, another first in the commercial marketplace. There are a bunch of companies like hers, Clean Fund, out in California, PACE equity, Petros Capital. I’m sure I’m going to leave someone out and they’re going to call me up and yell at me, but they are in many different states, working with local program administrators or setting up program administration. They are developing projects and funding them. It’s very exciting to see.

JP: Well David, I really appreciate it. We look forward to see you in Denver here in a few short weeks. We appreciate you taking the time. For folks who wanted to continue to learn more, you can always go to pacenation.org. Just thank you for your time.

DG: Jon I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much.

JP: Well thanks to David for taking the time today and really taking a deep dive into PACE. It’s fine, we’re going to do a few more episodes like this at Experts Only, where we take an issue and try to dive deep into it for our listeners to help them better understand what’s happening. You can go to cleancapital.com, find all of our episodes for Experts Only podcasts. I’d like to thank Emily Connor and Lauren Glickman our producers, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Catch us later this month for a live taping of the Experts Only Podcast at the PACENation Summit!

 

Did you enjoy this episode? Find the rest of our Experts Only episodes on our website or wherever you listen to your podcast. Subscribe and never miss a conversation.