Nuveen Green Capital’s Alexandra Cooley Is a Pioneer in C-PACE Lending

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A lot can happen over a decade. The combined land and ocean temperature increased at an average rate of 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit per decade from 1880 to 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It’s a big reason Alexandra Cooley spent the past decade trying to mitigate climate change in her own way, including as the chief investment officer at Nuveen Green Capital, the only provider of C-PACE (Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy) financing to complete a second securitization of C-PACE assets.

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Cooley comes by entrepreneurship honestly.

“I am the daughter of two small business owners,” said Cooley, who grew up in Connecticut. “I saw the ups and the downs of owning your own company. My first company was a jewelry company that I started with my best friend. We sold to boutiques in downtown Westport.”

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and working in private equity consulting for oil and gas companies, Cooley realized that if she wasn’t going to work on climate-related issues, as someone who deeply cared about the environment, maybe nobody else would either. So she pivoted in her career path by earning an environmental policy degree through the MBA and master of engineering management program at Yale University.

Her first job out of grad school was working for the nation’s first green financial institution — the Connecticut Green Bank, where she met her business partner, Jessica Bailey, and learned about C-PACE, a leading mechanism for the financing of clean energy improvements and other energy efficiency initiatives for commercial buildings.

“[Bailey] had spent about a decade in the nonprofit sector at a foundation and was truly getting excited about the potential for PACE policy to help accelerate clean energy adoption,” Cooley said.

One of the key competitive edges of C-PACE is that it is a fixed-rate and long-term financing.

“A lot of clean energy upgrades require financing,” Cooley explained. “The challenge with the financing of the [commercial and industrial] sector is the diversification of credit. It’s very hard to standardize underwriting. There are many different property types, geographies, submarkets. And C-PACE really helps standardize that because it’s a senior lien on a piece of real property.”

The senior lien in C-PACE financing is treated like a property tax or a special assessment. And the state that has the C-PACE program will allow private lenders to utilize this tax assessment structure to essentially secure lending against clean energy measures.

“That’s really beneficial for owners because then they don’t have to make that payback calculation,” Cooley said. “The improved building transfers to the next owner, they get the upgraded building and they get lower costs.”

Seeing C-PACE’s unique financing edge, Cooley oversaw and managed the development of over $100 million in innovative financial products for deploying clean energy by leveraging private capital in Connecticut. Then, she realized it didn’t have to just be a Connecticut story. It could be a policy that worked in all states.

“The other thing that became clearer and clearer during our time at the CT Green Bank was there was capital markets interest in providing this type of money and lending against this type of structure, even though it was new,” she said. “And so that gave us the confidence to say, ‘Okay, we can make this a national platform.’”

Cooley and Bailey founded Greenworks Lending in 2015, which was recently rebranded to Nuveen Green Capital, to create financial solutions for commercial building owners who wanted to environmentally upgrade their properties. They raised over $1 billion of equity and debt for the company’s C-PACE assets, including structuring the first-ever rated securitization of C-PACE assets; they issued senior notes against a pool of $78 million in C-PACE assets. The notes were rated AA by Morningstar and were backed by 148 C-PACE assessments in more than 10 states, including Connecticut.

As C-PACE expanded nationwide, so did Nuveen Green Capital. The firm’s business landscape expanded from one to over three dozen states, from zero to over 400 individual assets, and two to over 60 employees. While serving as CIO, COO and CFO, Cooley oversaw a portfolio with best-in-industry performance.

“At the end of 2019, we were starting to see a lot more scale, we were starting to see the industry take off, and we knew that we always needed to be as close to the source of capital as possible because that’ll get us the most efficient access to capital,” Cooley said. “So we decided to start looking at potential partners.”

Investment manager Nuveen stood out as a clear option through the process. The two companies weren’t strangers. Nuveen Green Capital’ securitization in 2017 was done through Nuveen’s private placement group, and Nuveen was the sole purchaser of the AA notes, which laid a solid foundation for their working relationship.

“They were aligned from the top down around what we do,” Cooley said. “Nuveen has three pillars of its strategies — fixed income, alternatives and responsible investing. We can sit squarely across those things.” With Nuveen being a huge real estate owner, Cooley thought Nuveen’s real estate expertise could really help Nuveen Green Capital scale its C-PACE platform.

“Jessica Bailey and Alexandra Cooley really are pioneers in the C-PACE market,” said Laura Parrott, senior managing director and head of private placements for Nuveen. “We’re excited to be partnered with them, to continue to foster their growth through our ownership of the company. [We] recognize that part of their success will be the growth of the overall C-PACE market.”

Nuveen acquired Greenworks in April 2021. It was rebranded as Nuveen Green Capital in 2022. Since its acquisition, Cooley’s team has doubled its origination number and expanded to 25 states.

Being part of a $1.3 trillion organization has given Nuveen Green Capital the resources to achieve higher growth targets in bigger markets, including funding one of the first two pilot C-PACE programs in New York City. The office tower at 730 Third Avenue is the headquarters of Nuveen and its parent company, TIAA. It recently underwent a $120 million full-building renovation. C-PACE financing covered multiple energy efficiency measures of the property’s retrofit project, including lighting, roof insulation and the replacement of all windows with View smart windows that adjust to light automatically to help control the interior temperature.

According to Nuveen, the C-PACE-financed measures will also reduce the property’s greenhouse gas emissions and help the building owner avoid nearly $100,000 in annual fines under New York City’s looming Local Law 97, which will require larger buildings to sharply reduce their carbon emissions or face fines.

“It’s our corporate headquarters, and I wanted it to be a beacon for the rest of the platform,” said Brian Wallick, director of New York office investments at Nuveen Real Estate. “Our initiative is to get to net-zero carbon as efficiently as possible

“[Cooley]is an innovative thinker. She has been very helpful in giving us a different perspective on how we might think about things as commercial landlords,” Wallick added.

The Midwest and West Coast have been the biggest markets for C-PACE, but cities like New York and Washington, D.C., have the potential to become just as prominent in the space. These cities are mandating the rapid decarbonization of the built environment, which drives borrowers to look for specific financing for those measures and upgrades.

“There are a few reasons why I think New York City will be a tremendous market,” Cooley said. “Local law 97 requires significant decarbonization of buildings in New York City. There’s a concentration of office and retail properties. Both of those sectors are undergoing tremendous amounts of change and shift. And then there’s a baseline of relatively high power prices in the city, to begin with.”

New York City has its own C-PACE policy, and regulators have released revised guidelines incorporating what they learned from two pilot programs. But the city has not yet released similarly updated closing documents for transactions. “The city has aggressive policy objectives across efficiency in existing buildings all the way to electrifying all newly built buildings,” Cooley added.

Between 2009 and 2020, an accumulated $2.07 billion of C-PACE investments closed nationwide. Over 24,0000 jobs were created each year, according to PACE market numbers from PACENation.

When it comes to environmental, social and governance investing, Cooley is also passionate about the social cause side and promoting diverse candidates into investment decision-making roles.

“When I look back at our experience, it’s striking that over 70 percent of the almost $1 billion of debt and equity we raised came from women-managed funds,” she said. “It is a remarkable statistic when you consider that only 5 percent of venture capitalists are female and only 14 percent of institutional managers are women. I think there’s something subtle going on.”

When Cooley was coming out of grad school, there weren’t really many opportunities to work in clean energy or to help mitigate climate change.

“It’s been cool for me that we’ve created 80 job opportunities, and we’re going to create more of them,” Cooley said. “So that’s really rewarding. That kind of gets me out of bed in the morning — seeing new people start and thinking about how I just gave this brilliant person the opportunity to work in accelerating the clean energy transition. It’s wonderful.”