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Posts Tagged ‘clean energy’

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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As I was driving home today, I heard a radio commentator say that the cost of solar has gone way down. John has solar now and can actually sell some of the energy produced back to the utility.

Nevertheless, the typical solar infrastructure is beyond the reach of many low-income people.

In Kenya, however, solar energy is being produced without the intermediary of the panels you may be picturing.

Derek Markham writes at TreeHugger, “Solar energy promises to be one of the backbones of our clean energy future, and its most well-known application is probably solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays, which can produce low-carbon electricity for homes and businesses alike. However, even as solar PV efficiencies rise, and costs drop, solar electricity is still out of reach for many people, as it requires a considerable up-front investment, as well as knowledgeable designers, manufacturers, and installers.

“In the developing world, small-scale solar, which can be used for lighting and charging mobile devices, is one of the solar technologies within reach of low-income residents, and while it can certainly fill some of the energy needs of people (such as a clean light source to replace kerosene, and to keep cell phones charged up), it’s only one piece of the energy puzzle.

“Another larger energy demand is for producing heat, whether it’s for cooking or water sterilization, which is often met by using electricity (at the risk of regular blackouts and high costs) or wood (which contributes to deforestation and indoor air pollution), but there is a viable and sustainable alternative solution in the form of solar thermal technology.

“Using the sun’s rays directly, without the need for expensive and complex components, is a perfect fit for quite a bit of the developing world’s energy needs, as well as being an appropriate technology even in First World countries. …

GoSol is demonstrating what is possible with several pilot projects, including a solar bakery and a peanut butter cooperative in Kenya, and is offering up plans for its solar concentrator at a very reasonable cost. …

“The GoSol Sol4 uses 4 square meters of mirrors to produce an estimated solar thermal output of 2 kW (said to be roughly equal to a standard gas stove) at a construction cost of between $350 and $500 USD (depending on whether recycled or new materials are used), and can pay for itself in the developing world within a year.” More here.

Simple and smart. Makes me think of Boy Scouts learning to start a fire with a magnifying glass that focuses the sun’s rays. GoSol sounds creative.

Photo: GoSol

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“In rural Uganda,” writes Madeline Bishop for Global Envision, “light streams from the Ssenyonjo family’s windows through the night. The children inside sleep soundly, free from worry of snakes and thieves. They are prepared for the morning’s classes after an evening of study. What’s more, their lungs are healthy – no one wakes with coughing fits or fevers.

“But for nearly one-fifth of the world’s population that does not yet have solar power like the Ssenyonjo family, this vision of clean energy is still a dream. Some 1.3 billion people live without access to electricity. …

“Many companies are now taking on the achievable goal of increasing access to clean energy across the globe.

“For their solar programs to be successful, these companies focus on tailored marketing strategies to make sure the products are affordable, accepted, and culturally appropriate for the people who could most benefit from them. …

“Some solar manufacturers and energy distributors are helping people skirt [up-front] costs through creative financing models. …

“Customers can finance their own solar systems for less than what they would otherwise be spending on kerosene. [African solar company] M-KOPA reports a savings of $750 per household over the course of four years and 125 hours of fume-free lighting each month.”

Read about the wide variety of approaches to this work in developing countries here, including why Barefoot College has a “training program for grandmothers, who are more likely to stay put and use their knowledge for the good of their communities. … They learn how to install, maintain, and repair the solar systems and, upon graduation, receive a monthly salary for their work.” Hear, Hear!

Photo: Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

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Here’s a story about venture capital with a do-good focus.

Sacha Pfeiffer writes at the Boston Globe, “Among entrepreneurs, there’s a dreaded place called the Valley of Death. That’s where startup companies go when they run out of funding before making money on their own, and it’s an especially common fate for clean-energy startups, like manufacturers of solar panels and wind turbines. …

“But what if that early-stage, high-risk financing could instead come from philanthropists, who aren’t driven by profit? Later, traditional investors could step in and supply continued funding.

“That’s the concept behind PRIME Coalition, a year-old Cambridge nonprofit that has pooled $1 million from wealthy donors, including Hollywood actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, as seed money for its first investment: an energy storage startup company. …

“PRIME rethinks the traditional definition of charitable work and charitable giving. Its founder, 30-year-old MIT graduate Sarah Kearney, argues that companies whose products or services reduce greenhouse gases are doing a social good, just like soup kitchens and homeless shelters, so they should be able to receive philanthropic funding. In this case, the social benefits include conserving the environment and fighting climate change.

“The group searches for early-stage alternative energy companies … then locates philanthropists or socially minded for-profit investors to fund them. Those could include charitable foundations, investment offices of wealthy families, and donor-advised funds. …

“Peter Rothstein, president of the New England Clean Energy Council, said philanthropic funding ‘can make a significant dent’ in filling the need for early-stage capital for clean-tech companies.” More here.

It is not unheard of for philanthropy to put its investment dollars into companies that provide a social good. Read about the Heron Foundation’s decision to do so some years back in “Expanding Philanthropy’s Reach: Mission-Related Investing,” here.

Photo: Lane Turner/Globe Staff
PRIME Coalition founder Sarah Kearney says that companies whose products or services reduce greenhouse gases are doing a social good and should be able to receive philanthropic funding.

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