Why All Credit Unions Should Join the Climate Finance Revolution
Last updated: September 14, 2022
They say that this past summer is one for the record books when it comes to climate-related disasters. Amidst the doom and gloom, however, the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) represents a significant commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades.
But what does this all have to do with credit unions? Quite a lot, actually. Neda Arabshahi, Vice President of the Inclusiv Center for Resiliency and Clean Energy, joins us to talk about the climate finance revolution, which she sees as both a responsibility and an opportunity for credit unions. We discuss the key obstacles to setting up a climate finance initiative, how to make it successful, and what’s entailed in designing and scaling climate-friendly financing solutions that promote affordable and sustainable energy for all people.
This month’s BIG question: Considering the recent passage of the United States’ most aggressive climate bill to date, what role can credit unions play to help maximize the impact of this new legislation?
- No one knows their local communities better than credit unions. The key to really succeeding in a climate finance initiative is to really tailor it to your local community’s needs and resources. One framework for what it means to support your community in climate resiliency is to think about what you can do on two different tracks:
- First, to support your community in reducing their carbon footprint: energy efficiency, solar panels, EVs, heat pumps, weatherization, etc.
- Second, how you can help prepare your community for climate disasters, especially supporting safer and more robust homes, access to shelters, and rapid cash in a natural disaster.
- The key obstacles to setting up a climate finance initiative are:
- Lack of staff that understand solar, EVs, weatherization/energy efficiency initiatives.
- A belief that members don’t really want it.
- Concern that regulators might not support it.
- Most credit unions have lots of products that are really similar to climate finance initiatives, and only need to tailor them. For instance, a home improvement loan is not very different from an energy efficiency improvements loan.
- The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provides over $20B in funding to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is a particularly good opportunity for CDFIs. This could lead to 200B in green investment if the right stakeholders are at the table for the decisions. Credit unions can lead getting this right.
- How to best facilitate access to green products?
- Make them more affordable with low-interest loans with a loan loss fund backing them.
- Work with other entities like local governments to bundle incentives with the loan so the member can see it all at once and in one place.
- Get training. Inclusiv has a free training through the University of New Hampshire.
- Build a network of local community installers, builders, EV dealers, etc.
Read the full transcript:
Hello and welcome to another episode of the Remarkable Credit Union podcast. We created our podcast to help credit union leaders think outside of the box about marketing, technology, and community impact. Each episode we bring on expert guests from inside and outside of the industry for conversations about innovation. Our goal is to challenge your preconceptions about business as usual, and provide you with actionable takeaways that you can use to grow your membership, improve the financial health of your cooperative, and magnify your positive impact in the community.
Today’s big question: considering the recent passage of the United States’ most aggressive climate bill to date, what role can credit unions play to help maximize the impact of this new legislation? Today I’m very excited to welcome Neda Arabshahi, who is the vice president of the Inclusiv Center for Resiliency and Clean Energy, who works with credit unions to design and scale climate friendly financing solutions that promote affordable and sustainable energy for all people. Neda has over 19 years of experience in the clean energy and sustainability space, with prior roles as COO at two energy startups and as the energy program lead at the Clinton Global Initiative. Among other things, Neda has experience in the resiliency space because she started working with the Red Cross in the disaster relief space and has firsthand experience as a disaster responder. So a useful person to have around in any situation.
Neda, thank you for joining us.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
It’s wonderful to have you. I would love to just jump right in with hearing a little bit from you about the Inclusiv Center for Resiliency and Clean Energy. Actually maybe just quick disclaimer, in case anyone wasn’t clear, that’s inclusive without an E as in the organization that helps impact driven credit unions. Can you tell us a little bit about the problem that you all are trying to solve at the Center for Resiliency and Clean Energy and how you’re tackling it?
Absolutely, and that’s right. It’s Inclusiv with no E. Inclusiv is a nonprofit organization that serves credit unions. Our mission is to help low and moderate income people and communities achieve financial independence through credit unions and we represent a national network. We call our member credit unions community development credit unions. We have almost 500 member community development credit unions across 47 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. Our members collectively serve 18 million people, 18 million credit union members, and they manage more than $255 billion in assets. Our credit unions are predominantly low income designated CDFI, minority depository and/or cooperatives based in Puerto Rico.
We saw that our members who tend to serve folks that are on the front lines of climate change, tend to serve members that live in very climate vulnerable areas. We saw that they were responding to climate change in their communities often through services such as disaster or emergency loans or offering makeshift ATM options because power and telecommunications were down. Right after a disaster, right when everyone needs cash for critical basic life sustaining things such as water and food, no one had access to their cash. We saw these responses and then we saw credit unions start to develop more proactive solutions like solar loan products that could help their communities to be more resilient for the next storm or earthquake. We realized that Inclusiv could and should help these credit unions to more proactively prepare for climate change in their communities.
In 2019, we launched our Center for Resiliency and Clean Energy and through that process we spent a lot of time thinking about why it’s important for credit unions to take climate change seriously. We’ve been building, as you mentioned, building our network of credit unions that are positioned to offer climate solutions. We really see this as both a responsibility and an opportunity for credit unions to expand their portfolio of financial offerings and also to be a leader in climate preparedness and resiliency within their communities.
I know we first got introduced to you through a really great webinar that Inclusiv hosted about climate finance, and I’d love to hear how exactly do you even define that term climate finance and how can credit unions play a role in it?
Absolutely. Climate finance basically refers to investments that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, often linked to things like financing for electric vehicles, rooftop solar or energy efficiency in buildings. It can also refer to agricultural investments or other types of projects that, like I said, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We see that the clean energy and energy efficiency finance space is very large, but there are not a lot of credit unions that have gotten involved in this space. There are a few that are invested and rapidly growing their climate finance portfolios, but we think that this is a real opportunity for credit unions to enter into this space and be leaders in this space.
I mentioned earlier that we see credit unions as having both a responsibility and an opportunity here. I’ll say a little bit more about that in relation to this question. Credit unions are, as we know, they’re local lenders. They’re part of the communities where they operate, they’re member owned and their futures are tied to their members and their communities. As climate change impacts a community, the credit union does really have a responsibility to respond for their community and for their members.
One thing that’s really critical in particular for Inclusiv’s community development credit unions is that severe weather events often tend to have an out sized impact on those credit unions because unfortunately, severe weather events and climate events have an out sized impact on the lower income communities and the communities of color in this country. Those are the areas that our credit unions are serving. Since so many of Inclusiv’s credit unions, but also many other credit unions are based in the communities that are on the front lines of climate change, like I said, we’ve seen that credit unions have been supporting those communities. They have been the first to open their doors and provide cash when the internet and power is down.
We see that this climate finance investment in green finance as an extension of the responsibility that credit unions already have. We also see it as an opportunity. Credit unions can not just respond to disasters, they can actually help to address the root cause by investing in new clean energy solutions, energy efficiency solutions, solutions that help communities to better withstand climate events. As financial cooperatives that are already committed to investing in strong and healthy communities, many of which have been excluded from the clean energy transition, we think that credit unions are very well positioned to deploy capital to their communities to invest in clean energy, energy efficiency, and other climate finance solutions.
We’ve also noticed that the credit unions, which we’ll talk about in a moment, the credit unions that have participated in climate finance so far, they’re able to design financing solutions that are very specific to their members and their communities in a way that enables them to provide a solution that perhaps a national solar finance company would not be able to provide. Credit unions, because they understand their members and their community, they’re designing products that best serve their communities.
You hit on a really interesting tension of I mean, climate change obviously is a global issue and many of the things have to happen in a national framework, but obviously context is so different on the ground in every location. But on that more standardized model, it seems like clean energy financing isn’t really a nuts and bolts product offering for most credit unions. It’s not off the shelf, here’s the playbook to follow. It seems like we need both, right? We need a simple way to get started, but then we need the knowledge and capacity and desire to tailor it to a local environment. On that top level, why do you think it’s the case that clean energy financing isn’t just a out of the box product offering for many credit unions and what are the barriers to date?
Absolutely. I think it is not an out of the box product offering because of a few different factors that we’ve actually been told by credit unions. One: they don’t have the training or skill set in how to lend in this space. A lot of credit unions lack staff that are familiar with say, solar finance or energy efficiency finance. They also often believe that this is not something that their members are requesting or demanding. Then there have been some questions about how green loan product would be reviewed by their regulators and examiners.
What we’ve seen is that although all these barriers exist, there have been many credit unions that have gone out on their own and started to offer green loan products. They have often realized they had a product that was very similar. For example, an energy efficiency home upgrade is very similar to other kinds of home improvement projects. If they already had a home improvement loan, it was really easy to shift that into a home energy efficiency loan. If they already have a vehicle loan, it’s not that big of a stretch to offer an electric vehicle loan. We’ve already seen that those changes are happening.
We have actually done some research. We’ve looked at almost all of the credit unions across the country and found that 321 of them are offering dedicated green loan product in the areas of solar, energy efficiency and electric or efficient vehicles. And 83 of those credit unions provided us with their lending data. We found that they’ve originated over $2.6 billion in green loans in the past few years, so there is some traction here. There is some momentum and we’re hoping to continue to support it. Our center has been specializing in providing that support.
Are there any success stories from your network from a specific credit union that you’d like to share where credit unions were able to make a really meaningful and measurable impact on its community through a focus on clean energy?
Yes. We have, like I said, many different credit unions that have been ahead of the curve in this space. We work with a credit union called Tucson Old Pueblo Credit Union. They’re based in Arizona, in Tucson, and they have managed to build a very robust solar program. They are the number one solar lender in Tucson. And just in 2022 alone, they have originated over $25 million in new solar loans for 759 households.
We also work with a cooperative in Puerto Rico called Cooperative Jesus [foreign language 00:12:08], and they have been one of the early leaders in solar finance for the island. They financed 450 photovoltaic solar systems in 26 municipalities across the island. And right now renewable energy is actually making up 10% of their loan portfolio.
I also want to call out a new credit union, Clean Energy Credit Union. They’re a De Novo credit union and they’re based in Colorado, but they serve the entire United States. Within just five years of launching operations, they funded over $110 million in clean energy loans, serving almost 7,000 households.
We’ve really seen that once credit unions start offering loans in this space, it tends to take off pretty quickly and they’ve found a lot of success in offering these types of loans.
I have lots of questions more about the products, but I’m going to go to politics because everyone loves talking about politics. I think that’s a joke. We had this enormous recent bill, biggest climate bill that’s ever been passed in the United States. I’m really curious, what opportunities do you think that will open up for credit unions and how can that bill move the work of your center forward?
Yes, the Inflation Reduction Act, it is completely transformative. It has the potential to not just address the climate crisis but also address racial equity and climate justice. It’s a large bill, a lot of different opportunities, but one area that we’ve been focusing on right now is a section in the bill called the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, which will be offered through the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency. That is meant to support green lending initiatives that reduce energy cost burden, increase climate resiliency, and expand energy efficiency and renewable energy across the country.
We think that, like I’ve said earlier, that credit unions and particularly the credit unions that serve the low income and communities of color are really well positioned because they understand the needs of their communities, they understand how to design appropriate loan products. We are working hard to connect credit unions to the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to figure out the right way, the best way to ensure that credit unions are really known as part of the solution and ensure that they have access to that fund.
One area that we think about is CDFIs. CDFIs have been known to leverage public investment as much as tenfold. The Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund has a $20 billion portion, $20 billion portion that some of which will likely be a very good fit for credit union lending. We think that CDFIs, assuming that they were able to access the entire $20 billion, if they’re able to leverage that tenfold, we think that they would generate $200 billion in green investment. So there is a lot of opportunity for credit unions, but also I think that credit unions will be critical to this fund being able to succeed in actually reaching the most climate vulnerable communities.
I’d love to build on that point a little bit. I read a really interesting article recently about comparing Bangladesh and Pakistan and how they’ve responded to… These are very high flooding areas strictly in Bangladesh, much of the country is at or below sea level. And that there’s this reality of we need to reduce carbon, we need to do things like solar panels, EVs. But there’s also just this mitigation element, as you said, and that overwhelmingly underserved communities, lower income communities bear the brunt today and in the future of climate change.
I’m curious, some of these things are less about decarbonization. This article talked about the three pillars of Bangladesh’s strategy was, see if I can get this correct, it was basically the importance of upgrades to houses, not necessarily from an energy efficiency standpoint, but from a resiliency standpoint against a cyclone or a flood. That was bucket one. Bucket two was things like disaster shelters that people can get to that are tailored to the local customs and needs so people feel comfortable and will use them. And bucket number three you already talked about, is the getting people cash fast. That if people are in a disaster, they can’t wait a month to fill out a form and fax it to the government or whatever.
I’m curious to what extent you think credit unions have both, as you said, a responsibility and an opportunity to think about the mitigation side of things, not just the decarbonization side of things?
Yeah, absolutely. What we’re already seeing is that credit unions are often developing disaster response centers that are powered by solar plus battery. A few of the cooperatives that we work with in Puerto Rico specifically have developed centers that can serve as a place where the community members can shelter, but also there is access to water, there’s access to food, there’s access to electricity, and often satellite communications. I think we will see more and more centers like that where during non-disaster times, it’s a community center, it’s a gathering place, but during a disaster it is actually something that can serve the entire community.
We also see some really interesting, I’m going to take it back to loan product, we see some really interesting loan products. One of the credit unions that we work with, they have been developing a loan product. They do a lot of manufactured housing lending and they serve the Louisiana Gulf Coast. They have developed loan product for manufactured housing paired with solar panels. In an area that experiences a lot of grid interruption, they’re actually helping to drive rebuilding with resiliency and off grid electricity capabilities.
We’re also seeing places in New Mexico that’s been ravaged by a lot of wildfires, credit unions starting to explore loan products that would be rebuilding with resiliency and efficiency or clean energy where they’re looking into, this is early, so they’re just in the exploratory phase of loan products that would include fire resistant building materials and possibly paired with energy efficiency and/or solar plus battery storage. So that as the communities are rebuilding, they can also think about mitigation future incidents.
This is such an enormous problem that I think it’s great to hear these innovative ways that people are responding to it. It’s been the last couple years, mind boggling the scale of these government bills that have gone through, trillions of dollars and just the scope of everything they cover. We just had this enormous bill get passed, a chunk of it was around climate change. But I’m curious particularly from your perspective as an expert, are there areas where the bill falls short and what might those implications be for credit unions and their members? Just regards to the climate change. You don’t need to tell us about everything in the bill. I’m sure there’s a lot of pundits doing that, but particularly with regards to climate change.
I appreciate that. I think it’s too soon to say whether or not the bill falls short, but there are areas in the bill where we will see if it delivers or not. I think what’s going to be critical is if in the way that it’s implemented, the different programs that come out of the bill give decision making power and agency to the groups that actually are living in the most climate vulnerable places. Historically redline, historically disinvested, historically left out of our mainstream financial system, those communities should be at the decision making table and they should be able to have a very clear opportunity to help to design how the solutions are implemented. Because as I said earlier, they know what their community needs. They will know better. Each individual community will just inherently know better what they need than a federal entity because there’s so much nuance to what’s really needed in an individual community for something like the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to actually serve the community members.
That’s a great point. Yeah, that seems spot on to me. It’s funny, I just realized as I was riffing about the scope of the bill, I think being a political commentator might be my worst possible nightmare. I just had this vision, one of those dreams where you show up to the finals for a class that you forgot to show up all quarter or something. In a different life that’d would be a very stressful life.
You’ve already touched on this a little bit, but yeah, I’d love to hear more about, there’s often been this sense that climate justice and racial justice or socioeconomic justice are separate things. They’re movements run by different people with different aims and they’ve been coming together to a greater extent over the last many years. But at the end of the day, a lot of the movement in the green energy space has been people who are at times really, really committed and willing to spend more money. There might be a cheaper solution that produces a lot more carbon.
I’m curious, since you guys have such a focus on lower income and underserved communities, how can you facilitate access to clean energy solutions for lower income members who might not have the privilege to be able to say, “Sure, I’ll pay $5,000 more for a high end heat pump versus natural gas.” How can they do that and why is this important to the overall efforts that you guys are leading?
We are seeing credit unions able to make significant strides in this area. One of the best ways to do this is through affordable low interest loans that are easy to access, that the low income and underserved borrowers are actually part of the underwriting design. And that often there’s some herring between the loan product and government or utility incentives and subsidies.
Some of the credit unions that are in our network and have taken our training program. We offer green finance training programs and partnership with the University of New Hampshire. They’re free for credit unions, so we encourage folks to apply. Some of the most successful credit unions that have taken our training have started by contacting their city, county, or state governments or their local utilities and saying, “What incentives or subsidies do you have? How can you partner with my credit union to make these available to our members,” so that the loan product is not just the loan product on its own, it’s actually designed to help the borrower access the different types of subsidies or help to make it easier to access the subsidies. We’ve seen that government agencies and utilities are often responsive. They often welcome that partnership in ways that were unexpected to the credit unions.
That’s great. Really becoming a bundling, it’s a bundling strategy and really having all that potentially at the source in the credit union versus someone having to go out and navigate multiple places to put together their total financing package.
That’s right. And we’re also seeing some places where there’s perhaps a loan loss reserve or interest rate buy down or other types of programs that are designed to further reduce the cost of the loan or enable the credit union to offer lower interest rates for the loan.
Great, I love that. All right, to go really, really large, I think one thing that’s really changed over the last several years is that most people, and this seems to be really globally, realize that the climate crisis is not a hypothetical thing. It is upon us and the scope of the transition, the decarbonization of our economy is massive. Paired with the adage, if the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is today, what trees do you hope to see us plant? What do you hope to see happen in climate finance over the next five years?
Yes, I am hoping, and I believe that credit unions will start to expand into offering green loan products as a standard part of their portfolio of loan products. I mentioned 321 credit unions are currently offering dedicated green loan products out of almost 5,000 credit unions. We would love to see all the credit unions offer that, but if not all, a significant portion. I think that through that work, credit unions will partner with local community based installers so that they’re offering a loan product and they’re also having the network of green building and electric/hybrid vehicle networks dealers offer their loan products so that it’s not just through the credit union, but there’s an expansion into communities. That’s what we see right now with the credit unions that offer the green loan products. But I’d love to see that with every credit union because I think that through that process, this will grow and become a mainstream offering.
I love that. I think really building and creating those networks is so key to making this work because it’s going to take all of us to be able to address this.
Well, I’ve really loved chatting with you. I’m going to go now in a totally different direction, which is something that you may know I like to do, just a bunch of rapid fire questions. We’re just going to put you on the spot. I know you’re very professional and prepared, but what can you do if you don’t know the questions in advance? I’ll start with an easy one.
What’s your favorite movie?
Oh, my favorite movie is The Goonies. It is-
Yeah, classic and adventure and yeah, fun for the whole family. I love it.
All right. What is a place that you’d like to visit that you’ve never been able to visit before?
I would love to visit Japan. I have never been able to visit. I have heard that the food is some of the best food in the world. I think there are so many interesting, both beautiful outdoor natural areas, and then also interesting historical areas that I’d love to see.
Wonderful. I had the chance to go there 15 some years ago, and it was yeah, an amazing country. And as you said, I think it’s one of, if not the densest country in the world. But it’s also got the most wide open spaces to some extent because it’s so mountainous. It’s something like 90% unpeopled, which was really amazing.
Wow, that’s so cool.
Yeah, all those beautiful mountain shots you see and all that are real. All right, what is your favorite word?
My favorite word? Integrity. I like how it sounds, but I also strongly believe in it.
Good, I’m glad you didn’t say corruption or something like that.
All right, last question. What’s your favorite meal?
My favorite meal is tacos. I love tacos, any kind. There’s such a variety. But my favorite, favorite are the kind of tacos that you can buy at the street or sidewalk taco stands in Mexico City.
Awesome. Well, I’ve really enjoyed the conversation, and I think I find it really heartening. Many of our clients are doing really impressive things. We work with Clean Energy Credit Union. I know another client just wrote into their strategic plan that they’re going to do, I think a half a percentage point discount on all green loans over the next three years. The stakes are high, but it is also in certain ways, a hopeful time and a time of a lot of change and opportunity. I’m curious, if you just were to look back over our conversation or let’s just say all the work that you’re doing, is there anything that you didn’t get to that you’d like to share with our audience, or is there anything you’d like to reiterate for a final take for everyone listening?
Thank you for that question. I would reiterate that every credit union can and should consider offering green loan products. I think it is one of the best ways for a credit union to have an impact on climate change in their local communities. Like I said, it can also help to support their local members in reducing their electricity bills. It can help to support and build local green and clean energy contractors and installers, and it can help to keep all the investment in these projects recirculating within the local community that the credit union serves.
Wonderful. Well, Neda, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a real pleasure to have you on and wish you all the best of luck in your continued endeavors.
Thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure to be here. I really appreciate it.
All right, folks. Another really enjoyable conversation. I loved hearing all of Neda’s perspective and wisdom. My key takeaways: I think the first thing that I was really struck by was her continual language around climate finance revolution is both a responsibility and an opportunity. I think so often we get weighed down by the enormity of the issue, that we lose sight of the fact that there’s a huge opportunity to both do good and do well in this current situation, and that no one knows their local communities better than credit unions. You all have the know how to tailor products and services to the local context.
I always like frameworks, and I like the framework of thinking about what it means to support your community and client resiliency broken down into the two different tracks of carbon reduction and mitigation. Thinking about on the decarbonization side, how can you support your community in reducing their carbon footprint through energy efficiency projects, solar panels, electric vehicles, heat pumps, weatherization, et cetera? Then on the mitigation side, this was a three part framework from the Economist Magazine, which I quite liked, that thinking about how you can prepare your community for climate disasters and breaking it down into safer and more robust housing, access to shelters and rapid cash in a natural disaster.
It was really interesting to hear from their research at Inclusiv that the key obstacles to setting up a climate finance initiative are lack of staff that really understand solar, EVs, weatherization, et cetera. Second: the belief that members don’t really want it, and third: that regulators might not support it. Highlighting that in their experience, you can overcome the training obstacle and the other two things just aren’t true. Members do want it and regulators do support it.
I find it really interesting, the helpful, maybe common sense point that to really succeed in a climate finance initiative, it needs to be tailored to your local community’s needs and resources. But also that every credit union has lots of products that are already very similar to a climate finance initiative. A home improvement loan is not that different from an energy efficiency loan. Or a car loan, of course, is very similar to an EV loan.
It was helpful to hear the scale of what the Inflation Reduction Act has made available in this area that could be relevant to credit unions. And hearing that it’s over $20 billion to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that especially for CDFIs, that’s a big opportunity to support the work that you all do in your communities. I thought it was a great reminder just thinking about the key risks of the bill, that it’s too early to say because obviously it just got passed, but that [inaudible 00:31:56] success will be making sure that the right stakeholders are at the table for the decisions when they get made and that credit unions really have a chance to lead in getting this right.
This was a phrase from a lot of my non-profit and organizing work that I always found helpful, that everything should be done with whoever the group is that we’re trying to work with, not to or for them. When we show up from a place of humility, curiosity, and partnership, then that’s when the really meaningful important things happen.
Then lastly, just breaking down how to facilitate access to green products that they’ve seen at Inclusiv, that the key steps are one: to make them more affordable with low interest loans, typically backed by a loan loss fund or some other supporting mechanism. Two: working with entities like local governments to bundle incentives in the loan so the member can have a one stop shop and see it all in one place. Three: getting training. I thought it was especially important that they have a free program for credit union employees through the University of New Hampshire. And four: building a network of local community installers, builders, EV dealers, et cetera, so that the credit unions are deeply connected to the partners necessary to make this thrive.
All right, thank you for joining us today for another great episode. Until the next time, I wish you all the best of luck in making your credit union remarkable.