July 29, 2019 - From the July, 2019 issue

PropTech: Blueprint Power's Robyn Beavers on Turning Buildings into Power Plants

The rise of PropTech in real estate offers an encouraging opportunity to transform real estate owners' aging energy infrastructure and integrate innovative energy models. In this interview, Robyn Beavers, CEO of Blueprint Power, discusses her vision for turning buildings into power plants and highlights the emerging intersection between the real estate and clean tech industries that could propel building decarbonization efforts by providing significant revenue streams to building owners while supporting the growth of resilient, decentralized, and renewable energy economies.


"Our model is possible because of a major evolution in energy regulatory environments happening right now at the federal level, state level, and local level around the country."—Robyn Beavers

As CEO and co-founder of Blueprint Power, share the company’s ambition and growing role in  assisting building owners to monetize their energy assets. 

Robyn Beavers: Blueprint Power turns buildings into powerplants. By that, I mean that our software platform connects to and integrates with distributed energy that is implemented at buildings. We help building owners manage their energy assets—things like solar, batteries, or cogeneration—to produce excess supply, and then we help them sell that supply to whoever will buy it.

As the grid becomes more distributed, new types of electricity markets are emerging and looking for local sources of supply. It’s a great opportunity for buildings and for energy technology.

Elaborate on the  technology platform Blueprint Power uses to deliver on its promise.

We are a cloud-based mesh network that hosts different models and ingests lots of data from our energy assets, the markets, and other external sources. We talk to the energy assets behind the meter, to the wholesale power markets beyond the trading desk, and everything in between. Then we run models to decide what to do when including how to dispatch assets and where to sell the supply - with the goal of maximizing revenue for our building owners.

Your experience with sustainable energy includes being Google’s first chief sustainability officer as well as  Lennar’s VP of investments and technology. What about Blueprint Power’s business model, given your experience, is most valued by building owners?

The real estate community has become quite sophisticated around investments in onsite energy, both generation and efficiency. Much of the industry’s growth in this area was driven by the desire to save money on their utility bills and meet sustainability goals.

Recent regulatory changes in New York allow smaller generation sources to participate in wholesale power markets. This means that buildings as powerplants can start to earn revenue from those markets, and the real estate industry is excited to benefit from that. This model represents a progression in the real estate industry’s thinking on how to save money and make their buildings positive contributors to sustainability. Now, buildings can be more dynamic revenue generators as well.

Elaborate, as you engage with building owners seeking to augment their balance sheets and fulfill sustainability goals, on what you hear from them about the specific challenges and the opportunities in turning their buildings into powerplants?

It’s a very educated and thoughtful discussion. Many of the large real estate firms we work with are very experienced in deploying energy strategies across their portfolios. As they look for new ways to do that, their main goal remains the same: delivering great returns on their buildings. That means they are looking for a solution that is easy to use and commercially ready. It needs to be easy to connect to these markets, and there needs to be a lot of clarity around the rules and regulations.

Our model is possible because of a major evolution in energy regulatory environments happening right now at the federal level, state level, and local level in New York and other parts of the country. Things are moving quickly, but at the same time, not everything is perfectly coordinated yet. Not all the policies have quite clicked into place to make this an open, transactive market that everyone understands. Policy, technology, and strategy are all catching up with one another right now in these early days.

Are utilities in New York still responding positively to the real estate industry’s increasing interest in energy generation; and distributed energy becoming a significant revenue stream for building owners?

Utilities are on board. In New York, the trend toward buildings as powerplants is largely the result of the Reforming Energy Vision (REV) program, a public multi-stakeholder process that the utilities have been very involved in over the last few years.

The existing grid that we rely on every day is getting older, and the strain on it is growing as cities both densify and connect more renewables. The grid needs new types of supply and services, and that need is often focused in very specific locations on the network. So, our utilities are looking for supply partnerships with buildings in order to help ensure that the grid remains reliable and safe, and delivers electricity to everyone all the time. If done right, this model is a win-win for everyone. 

When New York State’s REV was introduced in 2015, Governor Cuomo brought on Richard Kauffman to pioneer that strategy and to manage the transition of New York’s utility industry. Is NY’s REV’s forward approach to new energy technologies and a distributed energy grid still a priority of the Governor and State?

Absolutely. The state’s approach has come a long way, and it is still growing. There are new programs and pools of money all intended to further accelerate the adoption of new energy technologies and the involvement of multiple parties in the new distributed grid. And in addition to the governor’s initiatives, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has launched an aggressive greenhouse gas performance bill that is designed to encourage the adoption of decarbonization solutions.

The state’s decision to allow small generation sources to participate in wholesale markets has opened up whole new markets and revenue streams. Utilities are offering new programs and redesigning tariffs to more accurately reflect different values of generation sources. All of this makes buildings as powerplants financially attractive, so it becomes a commercially driven decision for everyone.

However, it has become easier to start thinking about buildings as powerplants as part of the real estate industry. Property technology, or proptech, is emerging as a new, interesting category of innovation that is creating a new normal way of thinking for the real estate industry. Many firms are starting to understand that buildings can be platforms for layers of new digital businesses and services, whether in hospitality, office, tenant services, or beyond. Now, energy is no different.

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What is attracting Blueprint’s major investors, such as Lennar and Fifth Wall Ventures, to your platform?

What’s attracting investors from all sides—both energy and real estate, both strategic and traditional venture—is that the grid is evolving, buildings are evolving, and markets are evolving. If you can connect those dots at the right time, you can create a valuable platform. It’s about awareness of market timing as these worlds collide, and developing a clear blueprint, if you will, for the future. It’s an exciting time for investors to think about how their knowledge about buildings or energy technology can come together to create dynamic, safe, distributed grid platforms.

New York and California have been the vanguard of pressing for the utility industry to embrace renewables and a distributed grid , but they’ve taken different approaches to regulation. Question: Is the Blueprint model as applicable to both the California marketplace and building stock as NY’s?

Our platform is designed to easily transfer to any city and deregulated energy market. Of course, some things may have to be adjusted to account for slightly different market rules or values in every location. But in general, the concept of enabling buildings to participate in energy markets or energy meter bases through surplus power is replicable anywhere.

We chose New York as the company’s first market in large part due to the progress pushed by the REV program, as well as because it’s the real estate capital of the world. There are some great initial partners here who have a presence both locally and around the world. New York also has a very dense grid that really demonstrates the need for intelligent, local buildings as powerplants.

There are a lot of win-win-wins here in New York that could easily be replicated in other markets that are not too far behind ours, such as California or New England. There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening around the country right now.

Clearly, California’s utility sector is at a moment of transition: One of our three of the state’s major utilities is in bankruptcy, and new leadership is coming to the California Public Utilities Commission. Comment from your experience in both California and New York on what we might expect: Will-Distributed-Energy-Resources-Ultimately-Replace-Regulated-Utilities? 

I think we’ll see a lot of different answers to that question. After all, utilities are already different from one another; they fall into some main categories, but across the country, we have different types of utilities, models, and approaches to how things are run. I think that will continue to be true going forward, and that there will be a diversity of kinds of utilities in terms of how they make money and the role they play in the energy industry.

In general, Blueprint believes that the grid is more resilient and higher performing as a dynamic, distributed network; that it should consist of a mix of centralized and distributed generation and load sources; and that all of this should be scaled in a coordinated fashion. A great way to do that is to encourage a competitive dynamic marketplace for energy.

Right now, California is looking at redesigning, not just its physical infrastructure and corporate structure, but also its market structure. There’s never been a better time to go through the scenario analysis of encouraging competitive market participation, whether from buildings that have been enabled as powerplants or from small community solar farms. It’s a great moment to be thinking about how to ensure delivery, environmental performance, and, of course, safety, which is at the top of everyone’s minds right now.

What are the next steps for building owners interested in capitalizing on the opportunity for distributed energy generation?

I would recommend finding a way to make their voices heard in policy discussions about this topic, especially in places where those discussions are happening in real time. Often the voice of the end user, such as buildings, and potential major contributor, is not as present as is probably relevant now. I would encourage that and there are many ways to do that through industry policy groups and it’s a good moment for it right now.

All around the country, there’s a supply chain of energy consultants, advisors, and project developers looking for ways to site more distributed energy in buildings. They are great resources. And of course, Blueprint Power is always here to help.

What benchmarks of success should interested real estate owners be focused on in the years to come?  

A great benchmark would be an increase in the number of buildings transacting in energy markets in a dynamic way. Another benchmark would be the real estate industry becoming more familiar and excited about becoming participants in the electricity grid. And the proliferation of more distributed clean energy across the built environment in cities would be very exciting.

Lastly, it clearly took some time for the real estate industry to catch on to the market potential of companies like WeWork and Airbnb. With your experience pitching Blueprint to the likes major building owners, the Urban Land Institute, or CBRE, have you seen an evolution in the aforementioned willingness to embrace and embrace Proptech and to buildings serving as powerplants?

Often, our sales pitches become more strategic discussions. The real estate community, including developers, landlords, and REITs, now see themselves not only as users of technologies and services, but also as potential investors in them. The growth of proptech has increased awareness of the value-add the real estate community can provide to other industries. They know their buildings play critical roles in new digital platforms, and they want to both adopt those technologies as asset owners, and help scale them faster in order to see the benefits as investors. There’s a lot of creativity in the real estate industry now about what role they want to play in this market beyond just adopting a new technology in their buildings. It will be interesting to see who figures this out first: the energy industry or the real estate industry.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.