Donnel Baird grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. “We didn’t have heat that functioned consistently,” he says, “so we had to heat our apartment with the oven, which of course is really dangerous and also unhealthy.” Plus, as Baird notes, “It’s also really bad for the environment.”
Solving several problems at once is what BlocPower, the company Baird founded in 2013, is all about (disclosure: Baird is a member of the NationSwell Council). BlocPower’s software analyzes how buildings operate, recommends ways to save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and then installs renewable energy technologies. The company secures financing for the retrofit projects by grouping multiple buildings together — usually religious institutions, small businesses and public housing, all in underserved communities — and identifying investors. And Baird and his team aren’t just taking on climate change; they’re also addressing unemployment in the New York neighborhoods where they work, by training local workers for jobs in the green economy.
“They are certainly big thinkers,” says Rachel Wald, Social Impact Fellowship manager at GLG. The GLG fellowship program provides select social entrepreneurs with free access to its platform and membership of more than 600,000 experts across industries. Baird and BlocPower joined GLG’s 2015 class of fellows with big goals and a clear need for the technical experts with whom GLG could connect them. “Donnel is uniquely suited to be doing this work. He grew up in these communities and knows them really well,” Wald says, adding that Baird is “pretty unafraid.”
Baird’s parents — his father is an engineer and his mother is a social worker — are from Guyana. “My mom has a set of values around trying to help the less fortunate,” Baird says. “She built a career around that, and she did pass some of those values on to me.”
Those values have informed Baird’s entire career. He was working for the Obama administration, implementing a green building program as part of the economic stimulus plan, when he got a call from a pastor he knew in Brooklyn. The pastor was looking for help with the energy costs in his church, which were eating up 30 percent of its budget.
When Baird saw how much money energy efficiency and renewable energy projects could save buildings in low-income neighborhoods, the idea for BlocPower was born. He enrolled in Columbia University’s business school and started to explore building a company to take on projects like these.
“I had to quickly learn a lot when I started — about corporate finance and accounting, and a lot of concepts that were foreign to me as a community organizer,” admits Baird. Columbia also gave him exposure to entrepreneurship, which was a little more familiar. “You hear ‘no’ a lot in both entrepreneurship and politics,” Baird says. “You have to talk to lots of people, most of whom tell you no.”
Despite BlocPower’s early promise, there are still obstacles ahead, including the current administration’s tariffs on imported solar equipment and the steep cuts to the corporate tax rate. The latter has reduced companies’ taxes enough to weaken the incentive to seek renewable energy tax credits, Baird says.
“Many people who believe in climate change and want to do something about it have actually given up on the belief that we can do something about it in a massive way,” he says.
But Baird isn’t one of those people. He envisions a total of 3 to 4 million BlocPower-enabled buildings nationwide. And he says that if BlocPower hits those goals it can assist the country in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2 percent. It’s the same goal laid out for the U.S. in the since-abandoned Paris Climate Agreement.
“That’s what’s on the table,” Baird says. “It’s just a matter of getting people to believe.”
So far, BlocPower has worked with 3 percent of the buildings it’s targeted in New York City. The company works with utilities and regulators to electrify the heating systems of 1,000 buildings in the Bronx, and it’s beginning an expansion to Oakland and Los Angeles in California.
Each energy-updated building is another step toward BlocPower’s lofty goals. An example can be found Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, where BlocPower studied an apartment co-op’s energy efficiency and identified interventions, including changing the boiler settings and temperature controls in units. They also connected the co-op’s management with a company that has since installed a solar array on the roof.
Annabelle Heckler is treasurer of the co-op and worked closely with BlocPower on the project. She hopes the solar array will fully power the building’s common spaces and offset electricity costs for tenants. “We’re certainly interested in keeping our building affordable for the long term,” Heckler says, “and we’re also interested in creating a more sustainable and resilient city. New Yorkers really struggled in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and we want to be part of the solution.”
Being part of the solution motivates Baird too. “I have a 3-year-old,” he says. “By the time he’s 50, the question is, ‘What kind of planet is he going to be on?’ That’s really what’s driving me now,” says Baird.
“What we’ve got to do is get back to dreaming big and really going for it, because we don’t really have a choice.”