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Posts Tagged ‘BlocPower’

Photo: Donnel Baird.
Donnel Baird is the founder and owner of BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based energy technology startup that markets, engineers, and finances renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies to buildings in underserved market segments.

This article starts by showing how a professor and a college friend helped motivate a young man depressed about race in America and then describes how he turned himself into a force for change.

Sarah Kaplan writes at the Washington Post, “Donnel Baird kept his coat on while he toured the aging sanctuary. His breath froze on his face mask as he took in the peeling plaster, the dusty basement, the failing boiler that never seemed able to make Bright Light Baptist Church warm.

But when he peered into the kitchen, the shiver he felt was one of recognition. Every burner on the stove was lit. The oven door was open, its temperature set on high. It was exactly how Baird’s family tried to heat his childhood home more than three decades earlier, in another Brooklyn building with a dysfunctional HVAC system.

“The landlord wouldn’t address the problem, and the family couldn’t afford to move. So they stayed, the need to keep their children warm outweighing the danger of toxic fumes and open flames.

“Baird, 40, has made it his life’s work to ensure other people don’t have to make that choice.

“That’s why he launched BlocPower. Since its inception in 2012, his Brooklyn-based start-up has brought clean energy to more than 1,100 low-income buildings across the New York area. Baird’s business plan is simple: the company replaces heating and cooling systems that run on fossil fuels with greener, more efficient alternatives such as electric heat pumps and solar panels. That reduces the pollution driving climate change while also making indoor air healthier. The gains in efficiency generate enough savings to lower costs for property owners and deliver a profit to BlocPower investors. And the renovations create jobs and increase property values, building wealth in neighborhoods that have long been marginalized. …

“The foundations for BlocPower were laid during Baird’s childhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Brooklyn neighborhood just a few miles from Bright Light. It was a community with a spirit of civil rights activism — the center of school integration protests; the home district of Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first woman and African American to seek a major party’s presidential nomination in 1972. But the area had also been depleted by predatory real estate practices and ravaged by the crack epidemic.

“By the 1980s, when Baird’s parents emigrated from Guyana, the neighborhood was at a nadir. Buildings were in disrepair, jobs were hard to come by, tensions with police were high. As an elementary-schooler, Baird witnessed a fistfight escalate into a deadly shooting. That taught him about desperation, he says; when someone pulls the trigger, it’s because their back is already against the wall.

“Baird’s family eventually moved to Atlanta, where Baird got scholarships to attend a private high school and then Duke University. Surrounded by Whiteness, wealth and privilege, ‘I really started to see the structural elements of racism in America,’ Baird said.

“Then police in the Bronx killed an unarmed Black man named Amadou Diallo, firing 41 shots at him. The immigrant from Guinea was only a few years older than Baird and had been standing in front of his apartment building when he was killed.

“Baird sank into a deep depression. He might have stayed there if he hadn’t wound up in a course at Duke about social movements taught by historian Larry Goodwyn. He became close with the professor, who called the struggling sophomore into his office one day and told him, Baird recalled, to ‘get my s— together.’

“ ‘He said, “You’re so smart, there’s no excuse for you not to figure out how to plug in and get active on the issue of race,’ ” Baird said. …

“After graduation, Baird moved back to New York to work as a community organizer, then got a job partnering with the Department of Energy to retrofit low-income houses so that they used less energy and cost less to heat.

“Roughly a third of U.S. households have trouble paying energy bills, according to the Energy Information Administration. Wealth disparities and decades of racist housing policies mean that Black and Latino Americans are disproportionately likely to live in homes with broken or inefficient HVAC equipment that is more expensive to operate.

“This energy inequality is a public health crisis: aging gas and oil furnaces — as well as the stoves and ovens used to supplement them — can fill homes with dangerous pollutants. A recent MIT study found that ozone and lung-irritating particles from buildings are the nation’s biggest cause of premature death from air pollution. In the neighborhood around Bright Light, where 67 percent of rented homes suffer from maintenance defects, children are hospitalized for severe asthma at twice the citywide rate.

“It’s also an environmental crisis. The energy needed to heat, cool and operate buildings produces almost a third of the United States’ planet-warming emissions.

” Working on buildings ‘brought all the themes of my life together,’ Baird said. ‘The racial justice stuff, the economic justice, the climate stuff.’ …

“Baird began to envision a company that could raise huge amounts of capital and use it to finance green retrofits in low-income buildings. Investors would be paid back out of a portion of the utility bill savings. Baird would make the venture profitable by embracing technology and seeking out partnerships every step of the way.”

Read how he established his company, BlocPower, here, and what it has accomplished so far.

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