Brooklyn climate tech entrepreneur Donnel Baird may have just raised $63 million in Series A funding for his company BlocPower, but he’s not mincing his words when it comes to his overall mission.
“It’s nice to get Wall Street and Silicon Valley on board with a vision of building a better planet,” he said. “But I’m not doing this for the money. I’m doing it because — in my heart of hearts — we’re totally f***ed if we don’t stop climate change.”
Baird’s Brooklyn Navy Yard-based company BlocPower is working to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by “greening” older buildings through its software and clean energy partners.
America’s aging buildings produce more greenhouse gases than the entire U.S. transportation sector, the company says.
However Baird believes BlocPower could reduce U.S. greenhouse gases by an incredible 3 – 25% in five to 10 years. It’s already “greened” more than 1,000 buildings in New York City, including over 200 in Brownsville, and is now working urgently in 23 other cities.
The funding will allow BlocPower to expand and scale its inner-city energy retrofit projects across the country, as well as making them available to building-owners with no up-front costs through a finance option where loans can be paid back entirely from the cost savings of lower energy bills.
“We’ve got ten years left on climate. We need to get this sh*t right,” he said.
From Bed-Stuy to the Obama administration
Baird, who is proudly “Brooklyn born and bred,” said his parents moved to Bed-Stuy from Guyana in the 80s, as the country’s economy was collapsing.
“They had to start over from scratch. My dad was an executive in Guyana, and he had to clean boilers at the MTA, which was depressing and difficult for him. My mom is a teacher and philanthropist, and she had to clean bedpans.”
Baird lived with his parents and sister in a one-bedroom apartment on Decatur Street with no heat. When it got cold, his family would heat its apartment with the oven, and open the window to release the carbon monoxide.
Many in his neighborhood were also struggling in different ways at that time, Baird said. When he was 5 or 6 years old, he saw a teen shoot another teenage boy in the face.
“As I got older and continued to process that memory… it became the genesis of understanding how bad things could be and how much help everyone needed,” he said. “Both the person getting shot and the shooter needed better employment options.”
Baird went on to be a a senior staffer on the Obama campaign and a consultant to the Obama administration on a plan to hire and train unemployed union workers to “green” buildings around the country. However, at the time, the costs of retrofits were more than the savings from shifting to clean energy.
“The parts that didn’t work were frustrating because I saw such huge job creation potential and such huge environmental impact potential,” Baird said.
Around the same time, a Bed-Stuy Baptist church reached out to him asking if he could help decrease its $10,000 per-month energy bill. Baird said he could see how the church could save $36,000 a year on its energy — and a seed of a business model that could work.
He enrolled in Columbia Business School, which helped him launch BlocPower in 2014.
Noawadays, BlowPower’s machine-learning tech platform works in buildings by determining which retrofits will produce the most energy savings at scale, while remotely monitoring energy consumption.
Common retrofits include the cold-climate electric heat pump, which has been shown to dramatically decrease energy waste in partner buildings, as well as solar panels.
No love for North Brooklyn Pipeline
Now, BlocPower’s ultimate goal is to completely eliminate fossil fuel dependency in urban city buildings.
Baird, who now lives in Ditmas Park, is passionate about climate justice and tackling environmental racism. Communities of color and low-income communities — many in Brooklyn — are disproportionately located in areas that are vulnerable to extreme weather events and places that are polluted with toxic waste.
After a solar energy CEO told Baird he wouldn’t put solar panels in Brownsville due to its residents having bad credit, Baird went to Brownsville and helped more than 200 homes in the neighborhood get installed with solar panels.
“It’s important for us to go in and say, ‘It can be done here.’ Anyone can put a solar panel on the corner of JP Morgan,” he said.
In the past year, Brooklyn residents from Brownsville to Greenpoint have teamed up to fight against National Grid’s construction of a new fracked gas pipeline under the borough. Baird said, not only was he against the pipeline, he was willing to prove it was unnecessary.
“F*ck the North Brooklyn Pipeline,” Baird said. “That pipeline is a God-awful utility company project… I know some of those people and — God bless them — but they just want to make money off this gas pipeline.”
He said the utility had a “sham excuse” about not being able to heat affordable housing without the pipeline, when there was new technology available that allows us to heat and cool all of the buildings electrically.
Baird said he’d like to fit thousands of East New York homes with clean energy to prove the Brooklyn community doesn’t need the pipeline.
“It’s one thing to protest the pipeline, it’s another to show here’s the potential solution and do it.
“Our Series A funding is raised specifically to demonstrate that technology is available and affordable, so let’s run Brooklyn on this, and let’s show that [fossil fuels] are obsolete.”
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