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How energy consumption has changed due to COVID-19

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Zach Robin, Hatch Data CEO, joined Yahoo Finance to discuss how energy consumption has changed amid COVID-19 and his thoughts on how the Biden administration can accelrate the U.S.'s clean energy initiatives.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: Now we want to turn to clean energy because we've talked about this numerous times, the Biden administration very committed to investing in this sector. But we want to talk more specifically about transitioning to renewable energy in some of those densely populated cities.

And for that, we want to bring in Zach Robin. He's the CEO of Hatch Data. It's a company that tracks and analyzes building data. And Zach, I was going through your notes here. You're out with a new study just showing how much energy some of these empty office buildings still continue to use. What have you found?

ZACH ROBIN: Yeah, well, thanks for having me. The platform that Hatch Data makes tracks around half a billion square feet of commercial office space and commercial real estate, more broadly. And since the pandemic, what we saw clearly was that building operators are making the right decisions to invest in enhanced cleaning, extended runtime of HVAC equipment to get more air in the spaces. And they're doing the right things to get the spaces ready for tenants to return.

And so, we saw an initial drop in energy consumption as teams were trying to figure out their new operating protocols. And now as they've adopted them and they're going into these extended run times and more cleaning and attention to the health and wellness of these spaces, we're seeing that energy consumption has actually come back up to around 10% of pre-pandemic levels.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Still a long way to go, but if we look north of the border to the Canadians-- I mean Quebec-- the province of Quebec generates almost 100% of its electricity from renewables. So if you could advise the Biden administration-- we don't have perhaps the hydro infrastructure they do up north. But if you were to advise the Biden administration, what could it do to help businesses and landlords shift to a more renewable green energy infrastructure?

ZACH ROBIN: Yeah, it's a great question. I mean, I think the broad strokes of the policy initiatives that are necessary were taken last week through a series of executive actions that we saw. You know, the question comes, how all of that production, that offshore wind, that solar, how those interplay with battery systems for storage, how all of those capital projects and those assets get wired together to support people where those loads will be on the electric grid.

And so, you know, there are details of how those policies get implemented that relate back to where incentives are for adoption around tax credits and making sure we're not picking winners and losers, but rather having a neutral credit basis, such that innovation can continue to occur, and we can be responsibly investing public dollars in the most forward-thinking technologies that can really make a dent in the renewable push.

SEANA SMITH: Zach, you're talking to these commercial real estate operators all the time. Are they open to these ideas? Is this something that they want to incorporate into their buildings?

ZACH ROBIN: Yes, I think one thing as-- we've seen the pandemic as an accelerant to a lot of trends that were happening in many industries. In the commercial real estate business, the COVID-19 pandemic has been an accelerant for what's called ESG, or Environmental and Social Governance, initiatives. And we saw this a few years ago start to take flight in Europe as investors are demanding that the people investing in physical assets have a plan in place to mitigate potential climate risk.

And now we've seen that adoption spurred by the pandemic here in North America, as leading commercial real estate companies are not only establishing clear science-based targets for emission reductions, but putting together plans, either for specific improvements to their buildings themselves or for relationships with third party producers of renewable energy.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Do you see any kind of hurdle in the major cities-- Chicago, New York, Los Angeles-- as there is this hybrid future coming, where some days you work at home, some days at the office, where the landlords will say, why would I even invest in this? It's just not worth it to me.

ZACH ROBIN: You know, I think one of the big questions is, when are people coming back? How quickly? In what volume? What's the schedule, to your point? And the early data is inconclusive. We've seen clearly flexibility is going to need to be the key moving forward. And that is both for individual employees and employers, giving their staff flexibility to work from home sometimes, come in maybe partial days, some days of the week.

But it also speaks to the flexibility that's necessary for these buildings and the electric loads on the grid. They're going to need market mechanisms and mechanics so that they can participate equal to that of a power plant and be compensated for reducing their load and shifting that peak as they can.

And so I think there are some implementation details of these policies that will be interesting in the months ahead to see how it trickles down to allowing commercial real estate property owners and operators to participate in these markets. It all starts with good data. It all starts with understanding how your buildings are performing, not just month over month, but day by day, hour by hour, so they can understand the impact of occupancy on their building's load. And that, therefore, tells them how much they have to play with and potentially monetize in the electric markets.

SEANA SMITH: All right, Zach Robin, CEO of Hatch Data, thanks so much for talking to us.