The third session of BEEx WISE: Women in Sustainability and Energy, Dollars and Sense, featured Suzanne Buchta, Managing Director in Capital Markets and Head of Green Bonds at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Kate Burson, Chief of Staff to Energy and Finance Chairman at the Office of the Governor of New York, and Charlotte Kim, Partner at WSGR. The packed audience was curious to learn about the financing that drives green building from these eminent leaders and the moderator, Suki Paciorek, Senior Vice President of Corporate Sustainability at Vornado Realty Trust.
Burson began by sharing a startling statistic that if we continue to work at the current rate, it will take 500 years to green the entire New York housing stock. Some of the barriers to speeding up this process are fear of change, outdated infrastructure, and an aging workforce. However, perhaps the most challenging hurdle to overcome is lack of capital.
Buchta spends much of her time addressing this problem through the green bonds program she helped design at Bank of America. Green bonds finance projects such as wind, solar, geothermal energy, and energy efficiency retrofits. Because green bonds function in the same way as traditional bonds (same credit quality, yield, and liquidity), investors can participate in green bond investment without changing their mandates. According to Buchta, this is a very productive way to engage corporate players in the process of green financing.
Kim pointed out that the challenges of green financing change based on the phase of the project. Although there is growing capital flowing into green projects, not enough of that capital targets the development stage of new projects. For example, very little money is going toward construction financing. This trend is logical, as the beginning of a project is a riskier time to invest. However, development investment is crucial, and we are witnessing the repercussions of a lack of development capital as the electric grid becomes increasingly outdated.
In order to fix this problem and continue to grow the field, Kim believes we need to harness the power and creativity of the private sector. The building stock is extremely diverse, and we need many players coming from different angles in order to make progress. On a similar note, Burson explained the need to tap into a variety of drivers in order to appeal to different types of people. The green building and energy industries cannot rely solely on people’s desire to care for the environment to secure financing for green projects. We must appeal to other interests as well, such as a desire to save money, an aspiration to be energy independent, or enjoyment of new gadgets and technology.
Shifting the focus, the panelists shared career advice with the aspiring audience. Buchta shared with the audience that she did not love every aspect of her job when she started at Bank of America, but that she found a way to incorporate the development of the green bonds program into her position and found real fulfillment and passion. Her take-away: when you are in a job that is not perfect, find a way to incorporate what is important to you. Burson gave some tough love, advising us to work as hard as we can and do the best quality work we are capable of in every job, even if we don’t love it. Kim advocated understanding the system before criticizing it. She added that in order to actually have the opportunity to understand the system, we must be open to all sorts of opportunities. We cannot shy away from risk or be afraid of being uncomfortable.
To close, Paciorek asked the panelists to talk about strategies they have developed to combat the challenges of being a women in a male-dominated field. Buchta told a hilarious story about using comedy to ease tension in the work place. One of her male co-workers would consistently give her a high-five, and tell her, “You the man” when Buchta closed a deal. When this colleague closed a deal he had been working on for months, Buchta gave him a high-five as well, telling him, “You go girl!” Everyone enjoyed the joke, and Buchta was able to make light of the challenge of being the only women at the table.
WISE: Women in Sustainability and Energy was a four part symposia featuring inspirational women thought-leaders who accelerate sustainability programs and energy agendas. WISE provided a forum for knowledge sharing and inspiration, supporting the leaders of today and providing a platform for the next generation of women in this critical industry.
Check out video highlights from the third session, “Dollars and Sense,” here.