Jun 16, 2022
Donnel Baird dreams big — like, saving- the-planet big. And he is starting right here in Brooklyn.
Born and raised in Bed- Stuy, Baird grew up in an apartment with a dysfunctional heating system. He was far from alone: Around 70 percent of the city’s buildings use oil- or gas-powered boilers, many of them rundown to the point of inefficiency, many of them spewing potentially dangerous fumes.
In Brownsville, for example, 73 percent of residential buildings have some kind of “maintenance defect,” resulting in asthma rates close to double the New York City average.
Baird didn’t start thinking about the potential synergy of mitigating the climate crisis and tackling socioeconomic issues until his time as an undergrad at Duke. After graduating, he became a community organizer in Brooklyn and then worked for the Obama administration’s energy department retrofitting low-income residences across the city with more energy-efficient electric heating systems.
At Columbia Business School, he developed an idea so good that the U.S. Department of Energy invested $2 million into it — while he was still a student. The pitch: Create a private company that could perform similar residential energy system retrofitting on a large enough scale to actually dent the climate crisis and create equity in low- income communities.
The question was how such an entity could become and stay profitable. The answer: It would shave off so much of the energy costs that the company and its investors could all get a cut of the savings. Plus, solar panels on residential roofs for maximum green efficiency would actually create surplus energy, which could be stored in basement batteries and sold back to energy grids — in Baird’s vision, by local-owned cooperatives. And the installation of all the systems could create construction and other jobs in the communities.
With the initial funding, Baird founded BlocPower in 2012. Since then, the company has retrofitted over 1,200 buildings and is now working with the city of Ithaca on the country’s first citywide residential electrification project (with the help of millions from the likes of Microsoft and Goldman Sachs). It has been recognized as one of the world’s most innovative companies by Time and Fast Company.
“I just know in my bones that we can address the climate crisis at scale,” Baird told Fast Company in March. “I don’t know if we will. But I know we can.”