Podcast Episode 1.73

Making buildings smarter, greener and healthier

w/ Katie McGinty and Ian Harris

The side benefit of reducing building emissions? Increasing quality of life.

Building operations (heating, cooling and electrification) account for 27% of global CO2 emissions, but represent some of the lowest-hanging fruit in the challenge of global decarbonization. With efficient design and transitioning to cleanly-sourced electricity, like solar panels, building-related emissions could be decreased by as much as 80%.

Katy McGinty, vice president and chief sustainability officer of Johnson Controls and Ian Harris, business development manager at BlocPower, joined Climate Now to discuss how implementing smart control technologies, more insulated building envelopes, and clean-energy technologies like solar power and heat pumps, aren’t just critical to reaching global net-zero goals, they also make homes and buildings safer, more comfortable, and more affordable to live and work in. And with smart business approaches and community buy-in, building decarbonization can be a tool for environmental justice as much as climate mitigation, by engaging low-income communities, underserved communities and communities of color in the fight against climate change.


Ian Harris
Business Development Manager, BlocPower


Ian Harris

Business Development Manager, BlocPower

Ian Harris is the Business Development Manager at BlocPower. He earned a BA from Harvard University where he studied Politics and Government. He previously worked for the City of New York and the New York State Department of Labor.

Katie McGinty
Vice President and Chief Sustainability and External Relations Officer, Johnson Controls


Katie McGinty

Vice President and Chief Sustainability and External Relations Officer, Johnson Controls

Katie McGinty is vice president and chief sustainability and external relations officer for Johnson Controls. Katie has served as a top environmental official at both the state and federal level, including as an advisor to former president Bill Clinton. She previously worked as the Senior Vice President of the Oceans Program for the Environmental Defense Fund

Hosted By:

James Lawler
Climate Now Host


James Lawler

Climate Now Host
James Lawler is the founder of Climate Now. James started Climate Now as a way to learn about climate change and our energy system. Climate Now’s mission is to distill and communicate the science of our changing climate, the technologies that could help us avoid a climate crisis, and the economic and policy pathways to achieve net zero emissions globally. James is also the founder of Osmosis Films, a creative studio.


In this episode, we hear from two guests from two different companies that are working to decarbonize buildings: from iconic structures like the Empire State Building and The White House to community centers and public housing. We learn about the technologies and energy efficiency upgrades that can dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions coming from buildings.

First up is Katie McGinty, Vice President and Chief Sustainability and External Relations Officer of Johnson Controls. Katie starts by telling us about Johnson Controls, which started 137 years ago when Dr. Warren Johnson invented the first electric thermostat (2:27), and continues to develop and implement building technologies and efficiency improvements. 

At 6:48, Katie says that Johnson Controls helped cut the Empire State Building’s electricity bill by $40 million “over a number of years,” by adding efficiency improvements “to every bit of that building envelope.”

She then explains some fascinating ways that Johnson Controls’ building technologies are not only helping the planet, but improving fan experiences at stadiums (8:02) and helping medical teams be more efficient and save lives at hospitals (9:16). 

At 14:07, we hear from our next guest, Ian Harris, the Business Development Manager at BlocPower. He tells us how his company aims to make buildings “smarter, greener, and healthier,” and how they focus on working with low and moderate income communities, and communities of color “who have historically been left out of that process.”

At 18:57, Ian tells us how BlocPower is taking on a city-wide decarbonization project in Ithaca, NY to help the city become carbon neutral by 2030. 

At 20:51, Ian explains how the community organizing and civil rights backgrounds of BlocPower’s founders and staff guide the company’s efforts to bring everybody “to the table” and yield an equitable return on the investments.


Introduction to Climate Now

[00:00:00] James Lawler: Welcome to Climate Now, a podcast that explores and explains the ideas, technologies, and practical on-the-ground solutions that we need to address the global climate crisis and achieve a net zero emissions future. I’m James Lawler, and today we’re going to explore how emissions from building operations can be cut by 80% through improved energy efficiency, electrification and transitioning our electricity generation to clean sources.

[00:00:32] Building operations — think heating, cooling, electricity — are responsible for 27% of global CO2 emissions, and that number is closer to 50% when you add the emissions that come from building materials and construction. With the help of our guests today, we’ll tackle the following questions:

[00:00:49] How can smart buildings improve energy efficiency, and what are some examples of this technology? What are heat pumps and how are they part of the decarbonization solution, and how do we ensure that decarbonization happens in a way that’s inclusive and affordable?

[00:01:03] I spoke with two different guests whose companies are providing both the technology and expertise to digitize, electrify, and improve energy efficiency of the built environment.

[00:01:11] Ian Harris is a business development manager at BlocPower, a company trying to green the urban environment one city at a time. BlocPower announced earlier this year it would help Ithaca, New York to decarbonize its entire building stock in an all-out effort to be carbon neutral by 2030. First up, however, we’ll talk to Katie McGinty, Vice President and Chief Sustainability and External Relations Officer at Johnson Controls.

[00:01:33] Katie has served as a top environmental official at both the state and federal level, including as an advisor to former president Bill Clinton. Prior to her current job, she worked as the Senior Vice President of the Oceans Program for the Environmental Defense Fund. Katie will share the kinds of technologies that Johnson Controls has developed to make buildings smarter and more energy efficient.


Katie McGinty, Johnson Controls

[00:01:52] Katie, thanks so much for joining us today. It’s great to have you.

[00:01:55] Katie McGinty: Thanks for including us. I’m very excited to engage and I really wanna thank you guys at the top. You’re getting a great informed, data-rich climate message out there, so thanks for what you do.

[00:02:08] James Lawler: Well, thanks so much. Can you start by telling us a little bit about Johnson Controls? What, what exactly does the company do?


About Johnson Controls

[00:02:14] Katie McGinty: Johnson Controls has been around a long time. We’re 137 years young, and from the start we’ve been all about buildings. We are a one hundred percent pure play sustainable buildings technology company. We started with Dr. Warren Johnson, who was a teacher and who got it that when a building is either way too cold or way too hot, it’s really unlikely that he’s grabbing the attention of those students in his classroom.

[00:02:43] So he invented the first electric thermostat and for the century-plus since, we’ve been building on that innovation with the idea that being ultra efficient is also being about ultra lifting up the productivity, the health, the wellbeing, frankly the joy of people in buildings, and driving technology to be able to achieve all those ends.

[00:03:14] And we went from that initial electronic thermostat that enabled the room not to be freezing or boiling hot to ever increasing powers around the controls, the intelligence of the building, and it looks a little bit like this, so a control on a heating and air conditioning machine enables it to be 20, 30% more efficient.

[00:03:40] How? Because it’s taking data about, well, what is the temperature right now? Can the HVAC dial it back? Because it’s plenty warm or plenty cool in that room, right as it is. Adding to that now, things like air quality. Hey, if there’s fresh air to be had outside, why don’t we open up those dampers and bring that fresh air in. Today what we’re actively doing is enabling business and building owners to see that there is money in being efficient because these controls can now receive a signal from the grid, Hey, electricity’s about to spike, really expensive, this would be a great time to just dim those lights a little bit, dial back the HVAC a little bit.

[00:04:30] Now we’re talking about hockey stick increases in performance because we’re breaking through the siloed HVAC system, so that that HVAC is talking to the lights, it’s talking to your plug load. Which plug loads, by the way, vampire electricity consumption can be 20% of your electricity bill. But even, it’s enabling us then behind the meter at the building to integrate renewables, now on site, so that you really can achieve net zero buildings.

[00:05:06] So that’s what we’re about. That’s what we spend time inventing and driving forward every day.


How energy storage plays into Johnson Controls’ smart buildings strategy

[00:05:11] James Lawler: In Johnson Controls’ strategy to decarbonize buildings, do you see other industries like energy storage, for example, acting as complementary to support your strategy on smart buildings?

[00:05:23] Katie McGinty: Where do things like storage cetera come in? Okay, so on this journey, we’ve gone from totally unsustainable to improvements maybe on the order of 50, 60% reduction in emissions and cost. Well, news flash, 50, 60% is not net zero, and so the net zero journey is very much about what you can do by way of renewables on site, what you can do then to back up those renewables with battery storage on site. And it’s increasingly also about thinking of that building as a battery because that battery of a building now is going to enable you to electrify your fleet, and have a place where that electrified fleet can be recharged and/or can be connected to the grid and support the grid. So batteries are an essential piece.

[00:06:26] I think we’re all excited to see that the cost curves on batteries are following some of the same ski slope, as renewables have followed.


Johnson Controls’ work on iconic buildings (the Empire State Building and the White House)

[00:06:37] James Lawler: So I understand that Johnson Controls worked on the Empire State Building, and I wonder if you could share the work that was done and how the building was transformed in that instance.

[00:06:48] Katie McGinty: Well when you have a building as iconic and historic as the Empire State Building, you might think, well, we’ll be very limited here in what we’re able to achieve. One of the important things though, that in that effort where the upshot of looking at it root and branch from HVAC in the basements, to the lighting, to the windows, to every bit of that building envelope, was and is a $40 million cut in the electricity bill for the Empire State Building over, over a number of years.

[00:07:26] We recently have been working on the White House complex. And there, it’s a complex of three or four of the White House campus buildings, and again, millions of dollars of savings, 40-plus percent in the energy consumed, in those buildings.

[00:07:44] It shows you that climate action is for everybody everywhere. You know, we have LEED certified buildings where people say, Well, it’s already LEED certified, and we regularly can achieve 30, 40% additional savings in that building. 


How smart buildings improve stadium experiences

Other examples? So, you know, in a stadium. Okay. Well, the stadium itself is bricks and mortar and it’s really expensive, but you have to have it because all kind of cool stuff is gonna happen inside it, fan experience, fun is gonna happen, but the building is just a necessary expensive inconvenience.

[00:08:22] That’s all just absolutely changing. In the Fiserv arena (Fiserv Forum) for example, home of the Bucs, where Johnson Controls is very active, the building, the stadium itself, speaks to the fans. So if cold beer is your thing, the building is gonna tell you, ‘Hey, the beer stand at Gate 13, nobody’s in line. Rush yourself right over there’. Is that an efficiency improvement? Yes. Because the sensors that tell you that are the same sensors that are controlling the HVAC and the lighting, but boy does it enhance the fan experience. So we’re moving from just tackling a negative to really unleashing creativity that will lift up the business of that organization and frankly, the sort of inspiration of all the people involved.


How smart buildings are improving performance in the medical field and saving lives

[00:09:14] So I mentioned sensors. I just was visiting what’s considered the smartest hospital in North America just last week. It’s our longtime partner and where we do have all of our machine learning AI capabilities, robotics built into the operation of that building.

[00:09:33] James Lawler: Can you share what building it is?

[00:09:34] Katie McGinty: It’s in Toronto, the Humber River Hospital, and there, again, the same set of sensors that are enabling us to optimize the operation of the building is also enabling in record time to be able to mobilize the medical team to be able to prep the operating theater, to be able to hold the elevator that’s needed so that that doctor can get to that operating room. And we know in advance because we’re able to keep a much closer eye on this. In a hospital in Singapore, I’m just thrilled to say, that this same set of capabilities we literally are measuring now and our performance is judged not just on how much energy we’ve cut, but in terms of the time from a code blue to an operating theater, and we’ve been able to cut that from seven minutes and lots of loss of life to two minutes, because of that same set of sensors that is enabling us to take on climate change is enabling that medical team to save many more lives.


Heat pumps

[00:10:48] James Lawler: I’d like to talk briefly about another building technology that I know Johnson Controls is particularly keen on, which is heat pumps. Heat pump technology has become a serious part of addressing the need for efficient heating and cooling. Why is that?

[00:11:00] Katie McGinty: These are truly remarkable machines and they’re remarkable for two key reasons. First, they are the key towards decarbonization of tough to decarbonize sectors, totally backing out the need for fossil fuels in things like heating spaces, hot water, and now increasingly again, major industrial processes.

[00:11:30] So you have an immediate move to electricity from natural gas and other fuels. But even more, because heat pumps are designed to grab waste heat, for example, and put it to work, for every unit of energy you put into a heat pump, you’re getting three and four times the useful workable energy.

[00:11:55] Energy efficiency has always sort of been this least sexy, if you will, kind of instead of front in line, which as we know it should be, the cleanest and cheapest electron is the one you never generate, it also always seems to get left to the back because unlike a new wind farm or solar farm, it’s hard to imagine a ribbon cutting on an absence of energy.

[00:12:21] James Lawler: Yeah, I love that. And that echoes sort of another concept we’ve come across of tunneling through the cost barrier and tunneling through these barriers and obstacles.

[00:12:30] To your point, what starts to happen is you think more carefully about efficiency and energy use as you find you’re solving this whole ecosystem of issues that you didn’t even really realize until you’re into it, which is so cool. One final question for you: does Johnson Controls have programs in place to cater for low income communities?

[00:12:49] Katie McGinty: Love this question. Thank you so much. Yes, because I think this is another thing that we have to drive home, that again, climate action is for everybody, everywhere. So we talked about some of the iconic buildings, the Empire State Building, the White House, some of the most compelling examples to me are in public housing, so we do major, major work for public housing authorities across the country.

[00:13:18] One, when we do those jobs, like in Philadelphia, for example, we train and put to work some of the residents of that public housing development because you can do this work. This is a skill that can be taught. So those kinds of energy efficiency jobs, they are a hundred percent part of our team. They wind up with a house that’s healthier, that is more affordable for them, and a skill that’s valuable in the market. Now how about instead of just bringing costs, we lift the entire community up.


Ian Harris, BlocPower

[00:13:56] James Lawler: And that’s a great segue to our next guest. Ian Harris’ company, BlocPower, is not only on a mission to electrify buildings, but make it attainable for underserved communities and communities of color. Ian, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s great to have you.

[00:14:10] Ian Harris: Thank you for having me, James.


About BlocPower

[00:14:11] James Lawler: So tell us about BlocPower. What exactly is BlocPower? What does the company do? How long has it been in business? What’s the business model? If you could lay out the bones for us.

[00:14:20] Ian Harris: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, at its core and at the forefront of all the work that we do, we are looking to make buildings smarter, greener, and healthier.

[00:14:27] Our objective is leveraging technology, leveraging data, leveraging community organizing tactics to focus on analyzing financing, install energy efficient, all-electric equipment in buildings across the entire country, specifically focusing on our low and moderate income communities in our communities of color who have historically been left out of that process.

[00:14:47] As an organization, we are looking not only to work with the mom and pops, we’re looking to work with larger organizations, your real estate investment firms, your large property management firms, as well as working with your various municipalities across the country. The work that we do can not only be done on the ground, but also be done at a municipality level.

[00:15:07] James Lawler: And so how does BlocPower then engage with building owners to make these changes? Is it a consulting business model? What exactly is the model?

[00:15:17] Ian Harris: We identify as a one-stop shop, right? We like to be able to engage with a customer from the onset of them just wondering what’s possible. Then take them through the entire process of analyzing their building, finding out what the appropriate solution would be for their building, and then actually implementing that solution as well as providing the necessary capital if that’s required to get the project across the finish line.

[00:15:37] James Lawler: Who is your typical customer? And maybe walk me through how I would engage with BlocPower, what would that look like?

[00:15:44] Ian Harris: So when you do engage with BlocPower, the first thing that you’re gonna get is you’re gonna receive information, right? You’re gonna receive the necessary tools and information to understand where your building currently is and what’s possible.

[00:15:55] Are we looking to do solar? Are we looking to do electrification? What the general cost would be from a high level, and then what the potential incentives may be to lower that cost based off of your market and its geographic location. Our first sort of foyer into this market was working with multifamily buildings, houses of worship, and non-profit organizations, very similar to what you see in New York City.

[00:16:16] Thinking about your pre-war walkup buildings that are old, burning dirty fossil fuels. That’s how we got our base and our start, and then over the last couple of years, we sort of expanded our expertise. So we do have inquiries that are coming in from across the country that are your single family homes, your multi-family buildings, your houses of worship, your community centers.

[00:16:35] So at the end of the day, our job is to provide the appropriate solution and sort of playbook to allow them to execute on either installing solar panels, installing air source heat pumps.

[00:16:45] James Lawler: Give me the before and after they come to BlocPower. This is what they’re doing, and then after the engagement, what does that delta look like in terms of the technology that is then used, or the savings on electricity. What are some success stories?

[00:16:59] Ian Harris: Absolutely. Let’s look at a pre-war walkup, right? Very common building that you’ll find in New York City. Usually we’ve been engaged by a building owner, a property management firm that said, ‘You know what? We have a building. It’s burning fossil fuel. It’s either oil or gas, and it’s just given me a lot of problems.’

[00:17:15] Simultaneously, you may be hearing complaints from tenants as well, saying that it’s too hot, I have uneven heating. I’m unable to control my heating, and at that point, that sort of gives us our first entry into seeing what’s possible. From there, we’ll do a basic sort of intake in terms of understanding where the building is based off our internal software, and we’ll be able to provide them with an initial building report.

[00:17:36] This information from a high level will just break down what the incentives are for New York City and specifically this market, what the opportunity would be in terms of investment for conversion into air-source heat pumps, and then what the potential timeline would be for a project of this stature. So, you know, it is quite engaging and again, the biggest part or the biggest opportunity that we’re looking to do is just get more people through our system, more people to understand what’s possible, and then hopefully we can take them through the process of actual implementation.

[00:18:06] James Lawler: And when you say that you guys have software that assesses the sort of state of a building, how does that work exactly? Like what is the software, what are the inputs to the software and what are the outputs?

[00:18:17] Ian Harris: From a perspective of our organization, it’s always data, data, data, right? We need to leverage data to make sure that we are making and providing informed decisions.

[00:18:25] Most of the data that we currently possess has been data that we’ve either purchased or are data that we’ve been able to collect over the open source. We utilize that information and then allow additional data inputs from the actual customer or building owner to provide that instant building report.

[00:18:40] That instant building report is just a high level and understanding about what’s capable of your building. So they’re just gonna give you feedback of: here’s what we think is possible, here’s what the cost is, and how long that timeline would be.


BlocPower’s city-wide decarbonization project in Ithaca, NY

[00:18:52] James Lawler: Got it. So I’d love to ask you about the City of Ithaca and the work that you’re doing there.

[00:18:57] The City of Ithaca plans to become carbon neutral by the year 2030, and BlocPower has a contract with the City of Ithaca to help them achieve this. So, Ian, I’d love for you to explain maybe what is this contract? What is BlocPower providing for the City of Ithaca? How’s all this working?

[00:19:14] Ian Harris: Yeah. First, let’s make sure that we give the recognition to the city of Ithaca to being on the forefront of this work and sort of collectively agreeing that this is the best path forward for their city overall. It took a lot of risk and we appreciate their work and willingness to sort of collaborate with BlocPower and select BlocPower to be the program manager of this electrification and efficiency program for their city.

[00:19:35] So BlocPower will facilitate, do the necessary outreach, marketing, and energy assessments on roughly 6,000 buildings throughout the city of Ithaca. Then we’ll take that information and analysis and provide the willing participants to move forward with electrification. This is something that is definitely on the forefront.

[00:19:53] James Lawler: Wow. I just wanna make sure I have it right. So you guys are basically looking at a portfolio of 6,000 buildings in Ithaca. A very long list. How are those improvements to the buildings going to be paid for?

[00:20:05] Ian Harris: There’s gonna be a general public-private partnership to allow and to ensure this is successful. So BlocPower and the city of Ithaca are not the only ones at the table to allow us to be successful.

[00:20:15] We have secured capital to directly infuse into the projects to reduce the costs. We’ve identified specific incentives based off of the local utility companies and the City of Ithaca as well. Various pieces that we will be putting together will allow us to provide the appropriate solution for these various building owners.

[00:20:33] Our goal, first and foremost, is to make sure that everyone is knowledgeable about their building and then what’s capable, and then hopefully the appropriate solution based off of the customer’s desires, timeline, and price point align appropriately for us to actually implement.


How community organizing and civil rights backgrounds inform BlocPower’s work

[00:20:46] James Lawler: So I’d love to know a little bit more about you and your founder, CEO Donnel Baird.

[00:20:51] How does the community organizing and kind of civil rights activism background of Donnel Baird and yourself and maybe others on staff inform BlocPower’s model and ethos?

[00:21:02] Ian Harris: Our CEO, Donnel Baird, comes from a community organizing background, as well as our fellow co-founder Keith Kinch. I think some of the things that have been instilled quite readily throughout our entire culture and organization is, you know, many hands make light work.

[00:21:15] The engagement of the community is a necessity for us to be successful in any of the work that we do, and then making sure that we are focusing on the opportunity to directly help the customer or the building owner build healthier and smarter communities, and then create good paying green jobs. And that has been something that we’ve been holding on to as sort of our North Light or our North Star since the beginning of our organization.

[00:21:37] James Lawler: I’d love to ask you sort of a general question, which is about climate justice and environmental — climate/environmental justice. What does that mean from BlocPower’s perspective? Because I think it can mean different things to different people, and I’m curious how you guys define what that is.

[00:21:53] Ian Harris: Sure. I mean, we can all recognize that there’s a level of disparity when you talk about the disproportionate impact of climate change on low and moderate income communities and communities of color. As an organization that comes from community organizing, we understand that this transition and this future is not gonna be possible unless we have everybody at the table.

[00:22:13] And again, it’s important to make sure that we say these individuals are at the table and no longer sort of on the table, right? So we are working to ensure that through our processes, through our relationships, and through the opportunities that we see, that we are ensuring that there’s an opportunity for just investment, that there’s an opportunity for great job creation, and that the return on the investments are equitable.

[00:22:34] James Lawler: What does that look like in practice? You know, like when you’re out pounding the pavement for new opportunities, how do you infuse your process with that kind of orientation?

[00:22:44] Ian Harris: It’s engaging the community, it’s understanding the appropriate partnerships that would allow us to be successful. It’s simply listening, right? It’s making sure that we are engaging the customers and hearing from them in terms of what their needs are, what their desires are, what their timelines, what their price points are, and provide the appropriate solution.

[00:23:00] We do have a focus on low and moderate income communities in terms of the work that we do, and through our engagement with the various municipalities on enterprise-level opportunities, we always make sure that the checks and balances are in place to allow us to be successful, and that the work that we’re doing will be provided or we allow to be implemented in the communities that have been left out from the path.

[00:23:23] So, doing the listening, engaging with the community, and then making sure that there’s an opportunity for job creation, that there’s an opportunity for investment, and that there’s an opportunity for this to be done justly.

[00:23:35] James Lawler: Ian, it was great to have you. Thank you so much.

[00:23:37] Ian Harris: I appreciate it. James. Thanks so much for having me.



[00:23:39] James Lawler: That was Ian Harris of BlocPower. And earlier we spoke to Katie McGinty with Johnson Controls. That’s it for this episode of the podcast. If you enjoyed it, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. For more episodes, videos, or to sign up for our newsletter, visit www.climatenow.com.

[00:23:54] We hope you can join us for our next conversation.

[00:23:59] Climate Now is made possible in part by our science partners, like the Livermore Lab Foundation. The Livermore Lab Foundation supports climate research and carbon cleanup initiatives at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a Department of Energy applied science and research facility. More information on the foundation’s climate work can be found at www.livermorelabfoundation.org.

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