Connecting the Green Dots to Spur Growth of the Green Economy with David Abel

March 25, 2021

David Abel, President & CEO of ABL, Incorporated, publishes: The Planning Report and The Metro Investment Report, focusing on land use and public infrastructure investments in LA County and beyond; and the VerdeXchange News, which focuses on clean energy and sustainable technologies. For the last 14 years, David has leveraged his professional experience and interests in civic affairs, clean & renewable energy, water technologies, last mile transportation, urban planning, blue-tech, and sustainability to also create the VerdeXchange Institute – an environmental think tank and host of annual, global, clean tech and renewable energy conference that focuses on what is: in-market; about-to-be in-market; and needed in-market in the global, clean and green economy.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. This is a very special edition of the Impact Podcast as I have my long-time friend on with us today, David Abel. David, welcome to the Impact Podcast.

David Abel: Nice to see you, John, a long relationship which I treasure.

John: Yeah, me too. 30 years or so, you and your beautiful wife, Brenda Levin, have been both inspirational and aspirational to Tammy and myself, because it is just incredible, both of your careers and what you have accomplished and still are accomplishing. It is just an honor, always, to have you on to be talking about the current state of affairs of where we are and where we are going. I always learn from you. For our viewers out there who have not met David before, he is way beyond just a Chairman and the Founder of the VerdeXchange. If you have not ever heard of the VerdeXchange before, you can go to verdexchange.org.

David, you have been on the show before, but share with our listeners your fascinating background before even founding the VerdeXchange fourteen years ago, and then the lead-up to founding it, why you founded it fourteen years ago, and where we are today.

David: John, I would be happy to give you a version of the roadmap. I have been doing this for forty or fifty years. Mostly, I would say I am a product of the 60s, studying economics, and eventually law and education, but interested in being a social entrepreneur. I wanted to be entrepreneurial, but I was very committed to the civic sector, what was called a Coro Fellow in the 60s, went on to run that organization. It is a made-up word, but it is an organization for 90 years that has been a vehicle for preparing people for civic life. In fact, today, there are 4 Coro graduates and there are twelve in a program every year in 4 cities. They rotate business, labor, government, political campaigns; therefore, US senators that are Coro graduates, Feinstein and Padilla in California, Bennett in Colorado, and Kaine in Virginia. Four out of 100 when the program is pretty small is a testament to that real-life training in what we call the Civic Arena. I was a product of the 60s, a product of that training came back to run that program, and then got involved as might expect in the 80s in cable television. I did the marketing and representation for multiple companies in twenty franchise battles all over California and outside California because your meshing local agendas and local values with the promise of cable television. That led me to be asked to do 2 or 3 other things which have defined my business career. One is to help a small cab company by yellow cab in Wilmington, California, and become the keep cab franchise for the ’84 Olympics. That cab company grew to be the largest cab company in the Western United States, and it grew a new entity called SuperShuttle which was a shared ride vehicle to and from airports. It was in over 20 cities around the country. About 14 years ago, that company got bought out. I was liberated. I was a Board Member, Shareholder, and advocate for them. My son had become a green advocate coming out of Stanford and I needed to figure out a way to have a 15-minute conversation with him. Somebody asked me to fill a hole in the Convention Center’s agenda and we created a green tech conference called VerdeXchange. Why VerdeXchange? Because Antonio Villaraigosa just became Mayor and we did not want to call it Green Exchange, so he said “VerdeXchange”, as he often corrects me when I say the term. That was inspired, in part, by what General Electric was doing at that time. I remember being on the stage at then NBC owned by GE with Immelt, the President/CEO of GE, and 15 CEOs on the stage with them, from railroads to all kinds of companies involved with him. I said, “This is not the green environmental movement that I remember from college. This is something that tends towards a trillion-dollar or more economy. I am interested in it.” That became our model. The VerdeXchange became a global platform in California looking at energy, water, transport, finance, now many other things like Blue Tech, ESG, and trade agreements and their impact on climate change. It always was a cross-platform vehicle. It had 50-some panels over two and a half days. You were a part of those in the early days.

John: Yup.

David: We had receptions that the Japanese and Canadian Consulates, they were part of that program that allowed people to build business relationships. Our theme was always what is impacting the market. What is in market, about to be in market, and needed in the market in this cleantech environment. You and I have both seen an evolution over 14 years of those markets. I just was corrected by my friend, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, yesterday who said, “It is not a trillion-dollar market which was on our website. It is a multi-trillion dollar economy. You know that really well.” That has been a part of my life. Not only the part of my life, we publish, involve civically in a number of organizations, and play a serious role with those organizations. I have taught at USC down at San Diego and at UC San Diego on regional issues, equity issues, and economy issues. That is a part of “I am still a social entrepreneur, but it is evolving with age, and now I am with two shots, I am liberated.”

John: David, explain a little bit to me and our audience, though. Social entrepreneur is really a new term. It is literally something that started evolving late 90’s and the 2000’s. You were 30 years ahead in your desire to be a social entrepreneur. Where did that come from, family member, mom, dad, or other family members, or is it just a sign of our times of JFK’s famous words about “Do more for a country than what we are asking our country for”? Where did that emanate from and how did you even think of that? It was not part of our vernacular back then.

David: Yeah. I will simplify it by saying, I am a child of main street merchants who grew up in the mid-’60s. I studied in the London School of Economics, traveled Europe and Asia, was art when Robert Kennedy fell in South Carolina for 2 years working on the issues that mattered. I believe in the power of the market and private sector, but I like to harness it to the public and civic agendas of our time. The marrying of those two was the vehicle for talking about being a social entrepreneur. I do not think I could have worked for an ARCO, AECOM, or whatever; I would rather have my own firm which was deeply involved in all those companies. I have been a Board Member of NASDAQ companies and private companies as a vehicle to do that, but I am not an institutionalist in the sense of a private sector company guy.

John: I got it. You love policy. You are so good in the policy stuff, I give you so much credit on that. For our listeners and our viewers, to find the VerdeXchange, please go to www.verdexchange.org. You have a conference that I am going to be involved with coming up at the end of the month, but talk a little bit more now about the differentiators. Why is VerdeXchange different than other green conferences that exist today? Who is your target audience, and how does it keep evolving and succeeding so well?

David: John, I would say that it is because, unlike most green conferences, it really is focused on the marketplace, on market makers.

John: Okay.

David: We are only interested in policy as it impacts the market. We are interested in entrepreneurs, initiatives, and product lines. When we talk to BMW, it is about how they are watching what the City of LA is doing with respect to mobility because that is influencing their whole production line. When we talk about water, we are talking about the change of direction from importation to reliance on recycled water, which is in the Southwest in California. When we are talking about the GRID, we are not talking any longer about how the PUC is reimbursing PG&E and SC&E; we are talking about how it has to be a two-way grid, and how we are going to decentralize that grid and rely on it at the same time. When we are talking about water in the oceans, we are not talking about as a Marine Institute, we are talking about the promise of Blue Tech and of technology in the ocean. I will give you one example, we have Geotech thinking about how we find our way with maps in our car from one direction to another using satellites, but underwater, you cannot use satellites. What are the technologies that are being stolen from JPL and the defense industry to be used in the new sectors of undersea exploration and development? When we are talking about ESG, it is bursting onto the scene as a material driver. We had panels with NASDAQ, the Toronto Stock Exchange, and other companies for years and had small audiences. Now, I think we would had have a giant audience, as you well know, as Morgan Stanley, Price Waterhouse, and everybody in the world realizes, it will drive markets and the behavior of companies. We are doing that environmental justice has become a new part of what we are doing because it is a part of life. We just had 3 webinars on green hydrogen, what hydrogen and what is exploding in that market of renewable green hydrogen, both globally and as an alternative to large-scale manufacturing industrialization processes. All these are new and they are evolving at breakneck speed. We like to have the people in the room who are the market makers driving that, or who want to copy or scale those technologies. That is the thrust, the centerpiece. I say the last is, from day 1, we have had a global perspective. The Japanese, Canadians deeply, Europeans, Koreans, Aussies, New Zealand, are all have been a part of our conference. All of them have come to the California marketplace, and all of them have two-way agreements. Israelis have just taken a big piece of bird exchange in the marketplace as well. It is global but focused on California, and California, we think, is a leader in this market.

John: What does the future hold for carbon credits with regards to creating an exchange where offsets are acceptable and also purchasable? Is this part of what is going to be happening in terms of climate change in the future, David, or not so much?

David: Well, John, that is a leading question because I could turn it back on you, you know more about it. You have been an expert on one of our panels, but we have had the California Treasure to be a part of this. We have had Federal Tax Policy people be a part of these conferences for years. We have talked about carbon capture and some of the largest investment funds in California, US Renewables, who really believe that this has a promise. Again, I am, the general, am bringing the talent together and I would turn to you and say, “John, what is the opportunity here for your company in terms of credits?”

John: It is a huge opportunity and very exciting. This conference is going to be online.

David: Well, it has been online, John, instead of our conference being always in the last week of January for the past 14 years. This year, we could not bring people together, a thousand people together, in a Downtown hotel from fifteen different countries, as well as California, so we went virtual. We have spread it out over time and have been doing webinars since November, all the way through March, a couple at a time on these various topics.

John: Right. Given that science is winning and we are going to be living in a post-pandemic world, God willing, in 2022, what are your feelings in person and relationship building and being nose-to-nose versus leveraging wonderful technology that you and I are sharing today?

David: It is a great question, John. I am 74, so I am biased towards that impersonal “over a coffee” or “over the reception” of the Japanese Consulate, building relationships year to year that grow are followed up. I have to admit doing these webinars and bringing people together who are from the four corners of the globe onto one panel is pretty powerful, but the follow-up in the maturation of those relationships, I wait to see whether they are still as strong as the ones that are developed in person. By the way, I traveled, as well, not only to the Milking Conference, which you are familiar with, but 2 major conferences all over the globe, building relationships; not so much to go to the conference, but to build those relationships. I find those experiences as very powerful. We will have to see what the balance is of the advantages and disadvantages of being so Zoom-centric.

John: Yeah, it is a great point. Talk a little bit about that, David. We are living in both very interesting and exciting times right now because it seems like the world is caught up to us. You and I were talking a little bit off air before we started this podcast, and you were very early in what you were doing with VerdeXchange. For our listeners who would like to find David, his colleagues, and the great work that the VerdeXchange is doing, go to www.verdexchange.org. You were very early and could have easily gone away, but your tenacity would not allow that. We were living in some points during the last 14 years where not everyone was truly “their feet wearing word following their lips” like she will say that. Now, with the new Biden administration and the excitement around ESG and circular economy, it seems like the world is caught up with guys like you and me. It is a very exciting time to be both in our positions and doing the work that we do, and we both enjoy. What does that mean for you at 74? Seventy-four is nothing now, David, it was when we were kids. Now, when Warren Buffett is still crushing it at 90, 74 really sounds like about 55 did when we were about 20. What does that mean for the future of the VerdeXchange by the administration, and everything else green that are happening around the world right now?

David: Well, I will make a quick comment and then try to answer your question better. What helped us survive in the difficult years was international interest in our platform. They loved being under a larger umbrella with significant connections to the leadership of California’s clean-tech energy economy. All those officials have been an integral part and personal friends from the beginning. They would not let me fail, not let me stop. That continues, but now again, the energy is coming back in these sectors and the opportunities to keep it going. I would say that I like you seeing the new Biden Administration come in and seeing the Senate and Congress in the position it is right now, could not be more bullish about the opportunities in almost every one of these sectors, on energy, water, transport, green tech, housing, and the built environment, and building back better. All of these subjects, and the role that I was introduced to four or five years ago with Admiral Denim[?] again, who was number 2 in the Navy under Obama and has become a Senior Adviser to us, on what the role of the military is in moving the agenda along on climate change and clean energy and technology, have exposed me to and made me bullish about these sectors. Why not be a platform for sharing what is going on in the world and raising the bar for people’s expectations about both quality and opportunity in these sectors? You all know that politics plays a role in many of the discussions about procurement. We want the politics not to be the only metric in these decisions. We want to push the envelope every time the decision is made to steal ideas from Denmark, Japan, Korea, South Africa, or wherever. We want electric recharging to be from the streets as they are in Israel, not just from charging stations. Every innovation we can share and bring to the attention in this market, we feel positive about.

John: Interesting. Given that we have been friends for 30 years and I had the honor to work with your family, especially Brenda, back in the day of the Yelling Company and Downtown’s Revitalization, it was a very exciting times. Unfortunately, we also had to live through the Rodney King riots, and last summer, we had to live through another tragic period in American history. I read a great line, recently, by Senator Cory Booker. He said, “If America has not broken your heart, then you do not love her enough.” How hopeful are you in terms of, “I know you love our state of California” and “I know you love our democracy more than most people I have ever met in my entire life”? Where are we now, where are we going in 2021 and beyond in terms of the success of this experiment called the “US democracy”, and are you hopeful about the path ahead?

David: Well, first of all, I am a Californian so I am generally optimistic. Secondly, California is pivoting. We are going to have to find a better balance as we experiment and push the envelope. If you look at the leadership changes in the regulatory agencies in the State, an all-woman State Transportation Commission, all-woman Department of Water and Power in the City of LA, the largest municipal utility in the country, the leadership of the legislature; I am fond of the old-timers, but there are new generations coming every 30 days; we are trying to pivot as we find our balance. After we pivot, we will get better at it, but as a Californian, I have lived in South Carolina and other locations, so not everybody does it the same way, we are trying to pivot to get a hold of the future and harness it for our advantage. I am bullish, I understand the pitfalls of some of this. Sometimes, experience is cast away in favor of representation, but it sorts itself out. Again, I conclude as a Californian, I am bullish.

John: That is good. I love that hopefulness. For our listeners and viewers also, to see the panel that I am going to be involved with policies and technologies for California waste for recycling crisis, you can go to VerdeXchange.org. David, do you have any other plugs you would like to give for your great platform and organization before it is time for us to wind it up today?

David: Well, just the secret and spelling out VerdeXchange is what we did in year one, is we spelled V-E-R-D-E-X C-H-A-N-G-E because we wanted to emphasize the market nature of the exchanges. I think you have done a terrific job of sharing this platform and opportunities. We welcome you to participate. We have been, like the Milking Conference and others, a pretty expensive ticket in the past, but not this year. When we went virtual, our sponsors stepped up and so it is pretty easy to sign on, register, and be a part of this. We will see what happens next year when we try to find a blend between Zoom and in person, but we welcome you all to participate. There are 2 on March 30th, one has to do with the GRID and its security and transmission, and the other, waste and recycling. We are delighted to feature you and focus on e-waste, organic waste, and plastic waste, all of which are hot topics nationwide, globally, and in California, especially. We would welcome your participation and the relationships that flow from this conversation with you.

John: David, like I said, it has been 30 years of inspiration for me. You are the reason I started this show. This show is just a mission for me, but someone like you who has made an impact in their entire life is just an honor to have you back on today. You are always welcome here, and it is very humbling to be asked to participate in your wonderful VerdeXchange platform. Thank you, again, for being a guest today. I look forward to March 30th and sharing that day with you, as well.

David: Thank you, John.

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