The GSB Interview: Mark Davis; from NBA Hardwood to DC Solar-Preneur

Mark Davis is a member of two very exclusive clubs. He is one of about 3,200 people who have played in the NBA, and, with WDC Solar, he is one of an even smaller number of people who have started inner city solar companies. His dual goals? Put a dent in climate change and reduce urban unemployment.

GreenSportsBlog sat down with Mr. Davis to talk about his journey from being a rural Georgia farm boy to the NBA to installing solar panels on rooftops in the nation’s capital.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Mark, GreenSportsBlog is always on the lookout for eco-athletes so we are glad to have found you! How did you go from the NBA to building a solar company in Washington, D.C.?

Mark Davis: There were two main factors that may, on the surface, sound unrelated. First, my upbringing on a farm in Georgia in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and second, Barack Obama’s run for the White House in 2008. Let me explain. Growing up on that farm made me acutely aware of the environment, how it works, and how important it is to do what I can to protect it. Now, fast forward to 2008. I had been retired from pro basketball for about 10 years by then. I had been working in real estate and software businesses, but was looking for something else. I was very excited about Senator Obama’s presidential campaign and was particularly inspired by his advocacy of renewables as part of his overall clean energy plan.

GSB: What did that inspiration lead to?

Mark: I started to ask about and study the clean energy markets. Talked to a friend from Nepal who was involved with the hydropower business over there. I traveled to Northern California to see the solar market up close and took a course about the solar business. I created a business plan and, even more importantly, found the right business climate in which to launch a solar company to give myself the best chance of success.

 

Mark Davis Sierra Magazine Jonathan Timmes

Mark Davis, founder of WDC Solar (Photo credit: Jonathan Timmes, Sierra Magazine)

 

GSB: What do you mean by “right business climate”?

Mark: There were some aspects of a good business climate for solar when President Obama took office in 2009. For example, the federal stimulus program included funding for solar. But that wasn’t enough. And, at that time, incentives were not in place at the local, Washington D.C. level for solar and other renewables…

GSB: …and the prices for solar panels were much higher then than they are now.

Mark: …Yes, by a wide margin. We weren’t anywhere close to grid parity at that time. So what did we local D.C. installers do? The birth of a new industry doesn’t just happen. We did our homework and found that rebates and other incentives would be needed to allow solar to compete on a price basis with fossil fuel generated power provided by the utility. We lobbied local D.C. politicians and civic groups to promote legislation that put incentives in place that eliminated the boom-bust cycles that were the hallmark of the solar industry back then. Eventually, the city council and mayor joined our side.

GSB: Sounds like a lot of work!

Mark: It took a ton of homework and legwork, but it had to be done.

GSB: What happened next?

Mark: Once the legislation was in place and we were confident there would be a market for solar in D.C., we launched WDC Solar. But our approach to sustainability was not purely environmental. We also established the company to provide sustainable employment for young men and women who desperately needed it.

 

GSB: How did you do that?

Mark: We launched a training program that would teach young folks to be solar practitioners, which provided a pathway to employment at no cost to them.

 

Solar Trainees WDC Solar

WDC Solar installation trainees learning their trade (Photo credit: WDC Solar)

 

GSB: Incredible! How did you fund this? Through angel investors and/or venture capital?

Mark: We bootstrapped it.

GSB: Meaning that you invested your own money for those unfamiliar to the startup scene…

Mark: That’s right. That’s how we were able to get the solar training program up and running.

GSB: Impressive. And then how did you get solar panels installed on people’s homes?

Mark: Well, at first, back in 2012-13, we worked with the DC Sustainable Energy Utility to transfer the solar rebates, tax credits and solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) to private equity investors, so solar panels could be installed on the roofs at no cost to low-income homeowners. The low-income families owned the energy produced by the panels. They had to pay for any electricity they used over and above what the panels produced which became a major incentive for the homeowners to become more energy efficient.

GSB: How did that work?

Mark: Very well in most cases. I’ll never forget it when one of my customers told me he had a monthly electric bill of 56 cents!

GSB: 56 cents???

Mark: He couldn’t believe it. couldn’t believe it! I’ll tell you, our customers have been just so thankful; it’s been a blessing to be able to help people. Another great outgrowth of our business was that many of our early trainees used that experience to get better jobs, thanks to a program with the District’s Department of Employment Services.

GSB: Talk about a blessing…So is WDC Solar only involved with residential customers?

Mark: We started with small-scale residential jobs; I’m talking 3-4 kW. Then, we got involved with bigger jobs when the District put out a request for proposal (RFP) to put solar on public school roofs. The RFP was for installations totaling 12 megawatts. We were fortunate to work on a portion of that portfolio. We also were involved with some commercial and utility-scale jobs, thanks to a partnership with Standard Solar. Our “sweet spot”, however, still remains low-income residential at this point.

GSB: Have you expanded beyond Washington, DC?

Mark: It’s been slow because in places like Maryland, the SREC prices aren’t so great. But with the price of solar panels coming down, the SRECS are becoming less important and that makes it is easier for us to go to other jurisdictions. Heck, when you and I first spoke, I was on the roof at Chevy Chase Baptist Church, just across the street from Maryland, helping to install a 100 kW system. Currently, we’re looking at opportunities in Atlanta and Chicago, but both are a bit complicated right now. One thing is certain: We only go into a market where we can create jobs for the local community.

GSB: I love the “solar plus jobs” business model. It just makes so much sense! Has WDC Solar worked on any sports venues?

Mark: We partnered with New Columbia Solar to provide installers to the Audi Field project, the brand new home of D.C. United in Major League Soccer (MLS).

 

Audi Field Solar

Artist’s rendering of the solar installation on the roof of Audi Field, the recently-opened home of DC United (Credit: New Columbia Solar)

 

GSB: I’ve heard great things about Audi Field; I need to get there soon. Sticking with sports GSB is constantly on the lookout for eco-athletes like yourself who could have a great effect on fans. Why haven’t we seen more eco-athletes and what can we do to change that?

Mark: That’s a complicated question. I think a big part of it is that it is so difficult, from a communications perspective, for many folks to connect extreme weather to the global, long-term climate change problem. The perception among many is that climate change is coming on slowly, that it is not a problem for today and that solutions are a century or more away. On the other hand, so the argument goes, there are clear and present dangers right now like police brutality against people of color and the opioid crisis that need more attention.

GSB: I couldn’t have said it better myself. So if that’s the case, how do we fight back?

Mark: Athletes and ex-athletes who work with people of color — WE have to be the agents of change! We need athletes to help us emphasize the massive economic benefits that will come to those who help solve the many climate-related crises. I see it starting to occur here — installing solar on your roof is definitely a statement of self-empowerment.

GSB: So which athletes can we get? How about LeBron James?? Nothing like aiming high, I always say!

Mark: LeBron James will be tough right out of the box. I think we should go for some great elder statesmen of sports who are also involved in renewables. In particular, I’m thinking of Bernard King, member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, who has worked on climate change issues and in the solar business. Also Dusty Baker, the Washington Nationals’ manager has a solar company. Another idea I have is to create a celebrity golf tournament dedicated to raising money to combat the climate crisis. Basketball players and other pro athletes love golf and this way we can highlight and communicate the urgency of solving the climate crisis in a collegial atmosphere. What do you think?

GSB: LOVE IT! Forget LeBron; let’s get serious and line up NBA superstar and scratch golfer and Brita water filter endorser Steph Curry in the mix! We must make this happen.

Mark: Hey, we’re in the “let’s make the impossible happen business”. I’m in!

 

Obama-Davis 2

Mark Davis with President Obama at the 2016 State of the Union address (Photo credit: The White House)

 


 

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Golden State Warriors React to Winning GSB’s “Best Team On/Greenest Team Off Court” Award for 2017

The reigning NBA Champion Golden State Warriors otherworldly performances on the court are well known around the world. While the Bay Area club’s sustainability record — along with that of its LEED certified home, Oracle Arena — is much less well-known, it is also top shelf. That combination earned the Warriors its first “Best Team On/Greenest Team Off Court” designation from GreenSportsBlog. The club commented on winning the award.

 

The Warriors’ sustainability record is a reflection of the Bay Area’s strong environmental ethos. The club, working with Oracle Arena management and concessionaire Levy Restaurants:

  • Powers its practice facility with solar panels
  • Reduces energy usage at Oracle Arena through a smart energy management system
  • Introduced a rainwater recapture system that uses the harvested H₂O to feed the plants and vegetation surrounding the arena.
  • Partners with a local vendor who turns oils from concessions into bio-diesel,
  • Implemented a system which utilizes water, salt and electricity to create an eco-friendly cleaning solution
  • Reduced the carbon footprint of, and the waste produced by the food service. In partnership with Levy Restaurants, the club uses compostable cutlery and flatware and composts food waste.

For the above and more, Oracle Arena earned LEED certification from the US Green Building Council in September.

And, because the team won its second NBA title in the last three years and is a favorite to do so again next spring, Golden State earned its first “Best Team On/Greenest Team Off Court” award from GreenSportsBlog.

“We share this award with our Oracle Arena partners Levy [Restaurants] and AEG, who are also committed to making the Bay Area a more sustainable community,” said Warriors President and Chief Operating Officer Rick Welts. “It is important to the entire Warriors organization to continue to do our part in making the Bay Area one of the most eco-friendly places to live.”

 

 

Rick Welts Warriors

Golden State Warriors President and Chief Operating Officer Rick Welts (Photo credit: Golden State Warriors)

 

The Dubs will up their sustainability game when the club moves to the new Chase Center — expected to seek LEED Gold certification — in San Francisco in 2019. So,  it will be on the shoulders of Kevin Durant, Steph Curry & Co. to keep up their end of the bargain if Golden State is to dominate the “Best Team On/Greenest Team Off Court” award going forward.

 


 

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“Take a Knee” Sunday and Its Implications for Green-Sports

Did Sunday’s”Take a Knee” protests by NFL players at all 14 stadiums, primarily against recent comments made by the President of the United States, along with longer-standing grievances about racism, police brutality and income and opportunity inequality, have any implications for Green-Sports? GreenSportsBlog offers its take.

 

I wasn’t going to write about “Take a Knee” Sunday.

In case you were off the media grid for most of the past week, you know that “Take A Knee” refers to the silent protests, both kneeling and arm-in-arm, made by NFL players, coaches, and even some owners during the playing of the national anthem at all 14 games Sunday (and then again at Monday night’s Cowboys-Cardinals contest in Arizona).   They were in reaction to a storm of, from my point of view, divisive, and racially charged comments, from the President of the United States, starting on Friday night. But they were born of the 2016 Take a Knee national anthem actions by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest racism, police brutality, and income and opportunity equality.

To be sure, climate change has strong, if not well-publicized connections, to social and economic justice. But I didn’t think there was a GreenSportsBlog segment here.

Then I had a conversation Monday with Diana Dehm, the dynamic host of the Sustainability News and Entertainment Radio Show and President of Climate and Sports Youth Summits. She, metaphorically speaking, shook me by the lapels and challenged me to write about Take a Knee as a “huge opportunity for Green-Sports!!!”

Here’s why she is right.

“Take a Knee Sunday” is arguably the highest profile recent example of athletes saying “Hell NO!” to the “You’re a jock, just Stick to Sports, don’t get involved in politics, that’s not your lane” — ethos that has long prevailed in the US and Canada, if not the world. It still has its adherents (cue the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson) but Colin Kaepernick changed things.

Whatever you think of the substance of his racism and police brutality-inspired Take a Knee protest last year, Kaepernick was the spark that jumpstarted a downward spiral for “Stick to Sports.” The ascendancy of President Trump was like dumping kerosene on it.

 

Dolphins Take a Knee QZ

Four members of the Miami Dolphins “Take a Knee” during the playing of the national anthem before the start of their game with the New York Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey (Photo credit: QZ.com)

 

Athletes, even despite the inevitable pushback from some segments of the media and public, should feel more empowered to speak out on issues of racism, income and opportunity inequality and the President’s bullying. Kaepernick already took the bullet for them. He doesn’t have an NFL job right now, but owners will not fire hundreds of Take a Knee-ers en masse (they can do so legally but it’s hard to imagine a mass firing taking place). And now that über-popular NBA megastars LeBron James and Steph Curry are openly criticizing the President’s criticisms of the Take a Knee-ers, that gives even more cover to more athletes across more sports to speak their minds on a whole host of issues.

Including climate change.

Do I think athletes are going to take to the climate change fight with the same numbers, at the same volume, they are bringing to the racism and income inequality fights? Of course not; not even close.

But do I think more athletes will mention climate change as a social justice and economic justice issue; that there will be more eco-athletes, post-“Take a Knee” Sunday? Yes*.

* Green-Sports growth among athletes won’t happen by itself.

To knock out that asterisk, we need to find more eco-athletes. And those newly-discovered and existing eco-athletes, along with other leaders of the sports-greening movement and, for that matter, GreenSportsBlog, must connect with the many athletes already active on the social and economic justice fronts. Once those connections are made, let’s educate the activist athletes about how the effects of climate change exacerbate problems from public health to unemployment to income inequality and how taking aggressive action to fight climate change (i.e. a Marshall Plan for clean energy and energy efficiency) is one of the best prescriptions to start to cure those ills.

 

LeBron James commenting Monday on President Trump’s attacks on NFL “Take a Knee”-ers (5 minutes 40 seconds)

 


 

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