Our Conversation with BlocPower - Highlights
The IGND Scorecard Team had a conversation in August with Ethan Bodnaruk, Ithaca Program Manager and Jaden Beck, Clean Energy Project Associate of BlocPower, on occasion of a year since the formal launch of the Electrify Ithaca program. Highlights of the discussion are presented below, along with updates in the current status.
“The BlocPower that you knew a year ago is not the BlocPower that we are today,” summarized Jaden Beck. Throughout the conversation, we noted recent changes Blockpower has made and while they don’t quell all our concerns, they give us real hope. Before highlighting elements of the conversation, here is our take on significant aspects of BlocPower’s progress.
The Electrify Ithaca program was officially initiated in July of 2022. Ethan came on board in March 2023 as the program manager and Jaden was brought on as a clean energy program associate in June. According to Ethan, “Once we had dedicated local staff here in Ithaca, we could really build those face-to-face relationships. That has really made a huge difference.”
The current count of projects (as of November 2023):
Note that these 18 projects above are for non-residential buildings eligible for the special NYSEG “gas kicker” program; this program sunset after the NYSEG rate case settlement in October. Support is continuing for single- and multi-family housing. A new weatherization program (Cozy Basements) started with Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County (CCETC) which includes paid on-the-job training for up to 30 homes this year.
BlocPower’s relationship with NYSEG led them to learn about additional incentives. “This enabled us to be the only contractor that could bring to bear a really large incentive for heat pump projects, called the economic development ‘gas kicker’ reaching out to non-residential buildings, which wasn't initially our plan,” Ethan mentioned. “That was a major part of having a program manager, who could go after the ever-evolving world of incentives out there and make sure we're bringing the best value to the residents of Ithaca.”
These comprise a small notable step forward on a very long road ahead.
Communications and Relationships
We see positive signs that BlocPower is committed to improving relationships as evidenced by their hiring local staff and creating a Community Advisory Board this year, on which we also participate.
Jaden commented that the board is helping them, “...think on a larger scale.” She added that they are, “helping us to bring back to center the questions that maybe still aren't addressed...what BlocPower needs to have as the number one role and where BlocPower needs to go.”
Ethan added, “We're able to focus and serve underserved communities more with the additional benefits coming out of the IRA and things like the affordable multifamily energy efficiency program…” He said the Community Advisory Board is, “a way to connect to these different communities… He said that BlocPower has, “a strong commitment here, and after kind of a bumpy start, we're moving in a positive direction and that we're just really looking forward to serving the community and making a difference here.” Ethan concluded, “As the number of projects we run grows, we're certainly, when the time is right, looking forward to hiring more local staff here; engineering resource, construction management resource. Over time, with more of those goals and progress that will be public facing, we'll also be seeing more staff to match that growing curve. So, it's exciting!”
Work with Contractors
While the start up was slow and in some cases off target, BlocPower now appears to have focus. A set of standards have been created so that participating installers have consistency. A framework for providing overall coordination of projects was established as well as a conduit to tap additional funding sources as new incentives and rebates become available.
“We have a lot of evolving relationships with the local contractors here and that's been important as well,” Ethan remarked. “We develop the scope and costs to a place that customers are comfortable with and then can turn those over to local contractors for single family homes to do the work without any costs increased to them. We're providing a valuable service of lead generation sales. We're helping to minimize the number of site visits that contractors have to do…There's a whole bunch of contractors out there that are independently doing work as it comes to them, but we're able to take a bigger picture approach to it. There are some contractors wanting to get into heat pumps, but they can’t because they don't have the design and engineering expertise. We can help with that, and they can do the installations. There are other companies that want to grow, but they don't have enough work to do that. We can help them with their sales and lead generation.”
There seems to be a public concern about long wait times for heat pump installations. Ethan clarified, “That’s really a case-by-case issue with contractors. You’re probably thinking of LaMorte Electric on the six-month waitlist. They're pausing new sales calls and intake and everything while they catch up to work. But some of the other larger contractors like Simply Installs, they tell us they have the ability for a couple more projects a week. Halco says they have the ability for more than that. We've started reaching out to Isaacs Heating, which has a relatively new office in Big Flats. And they're looking to double and triple their business out of that office over the next several years. We are organizing the marketplace; part of what we're able to do is just have these conversations with different contractors and see where they're at.”
Another aspect of working with contractors is ensuring consistency in standards. Ethan added, “BlocPower has developed those with Tatum Engineering. And this was a key aspect of our role with the City of Ithaca as Program Manager of the Electrify Ithaca program, because you can imagine as this program scales up. We want uniform standards for all projects that BlocPower manages, making sure that the key phases of construction and installation that affect heat pump longevity are managed appropriately...Being able to get on the same page with those contractors early on is a very important part of that.”
With respect to financing, Ethan continued, “We've raised money for multifamily and commercial industrial projects through Goldman Sachs. We can let other contractors use that financing mechanism as well for projects they run and not just projects we run. For commercial institutions where capital is more expensive and harder to get, we're finding that our financing is very competitive.”
About the Weatherization Program
Jaden commented: “Susan Holland [Historic Ithaca and Significant Elements] went through our free [weatherization] program. Having that first touch point to work with our team, to go through scheduling, including conversations like what timelines can you expect? She had a good feeling moving forward. And that was part of what I think helped drive that heat pump project that we're now pursuing... In our partnership with CCE moving forward, we're definitely looking to use [weatherization] again, the initial service that we can provide, that being something that's free gives people an ability to connect and build trust with the actual service and work that we provide and then move forward with further weatherization or electrification measures, if that's what they're comfortable with.”
Ethan also clarified more about working with NYC BlocPower personnel on the weatherization work, “We were able to utilize permanent BlocPower staff as crew supervisors and folks in the weatherization CCC program to weatherize residential buildings here and a few commercial buildings that were in our gas kicker program as well.”
More from Jaden, “That was a good test case for us, a pilot program to understand what our BlocPower crew can provide in terms of supervision…We're trying to center this as an Ithaca, New York program…Being able to tailor that, taking what we learned in terms of materials, how many people should be working in one house, how long we can expect them to be working on a home and transitioning that to training through Cornell Cooperative Extension's Energy Warriors program and the Green Career Pathways… finding ways to grow that for Ithaca, rather than bringing up New York City people as the permanent piece.”
Ethan expanded on this, “Exactly. There's a federal grant opportunity for even more funds. I think about a million dollars towards training the clean energy workforce that we're in conversation with Cornell Cooperative Extension and other local stakeholders on. And so, we see this pilot weatherization program as just another success and demonstration of local capabilities that will only help us grow the program even more and bring in more resources for it.
At the moment BlocPower has begun a new weatherization project “Cozy Basement” in collaboration with CCE Tompkins that will bring in participants from the Workforce training program to work on about 30 homes in the area (priority to LMI and CJ households). Aloja Airewele, Patrick Lynch and Guillermo Metz from CCETC are working with Ethan, Jaden and Evan Montilla from Blocpower on this project.
We recognize BlocPower’s challenge is real. No one has done this before. There are big obstacles with public awareness as well as “buy-in” by building owners. An adequate workforce needs to be established to complete the large number of upcoming projects. Financial assistance is needed so that LMI families are able to participate.
We would like to see a plan to perfect their electrification process and the scale up needed to reach the 6000 buildings within the seven years left. And we would like to better understand the stipulations of lower income loan plans or equipment leasing options, and any data showing its effectiveness in other locations (e.g., number of loans, average repayment schedules, number of defaults, etc).
We asked about BlocPower’s internal planning process and goal setting. When will they be coming forward with a set of goals, for example, where they expect to be by 2025… by 2027? What is the planning process and how public will they be with it? Ethan responded: “We've been at this on the ground here for just a couple quarters now. We have internal goals to sign additional projects and signing up as contractors for new and different energy efficiency rebate programs out there as well. We'll get to the point probably next year, where we'll have a better sense of how things are growing and scaling. And we might be able to work with the City on showing what some of those goals might be. And then, everyone's still waiting with bated breath for more information about the Inflation Reduction Act incentives because they are so significant...The DOE made an announcement that federal guidelines have come out to the states and tribes on how to start applying for the IRA funding. So, there's some movement on it, but the states will still have to do that. And then the money will still have to flow to the states first. We're starting to see some steps, some progress on that.”
Jaden added, “Our enterprise team is currently specifically focusing on that guidance. What are the common FAQs, where do we have a role in helping to guide that transition forward and especially for contractors who are already busy? …What it means to implement the Inflation Reduction Act rebates and tax credits - we can help them understand. We can distill that to the contractors and also have that knowledge ourselves. We have a little bit more under our belt to help facilitate that process. Ethan continues, “We have teams dedicated to understanding all these national and state level policies. So confusing for so many people, and that's part of our mission: making that simple and translating that into projects and into incentives that people can see directly.”
We want to thank Ethan and Jaden for spending the time with us and providing detailed responses to our inquiries. We recognize real progress by BlocPower. Still there are many challenges ahead and we would like to see BlocPower be successful in their part so that the City can achieve the overall goals of the IGND effort.
Still, actions speak louder than words and to this end, BlocPower must get a substantial amount of electrification projects completed and a clear plan moving forward to truly win public trust. Can they achieve the goal of 6000 buildings by the end of 2030? If started today, this would require an average of 70 projects/month over 7 years.
We agreed to periodic conversations, about every 6 months, to give us a firmer basis to evaluate their progress.