Meet the man who wants to electrify every building in America

Donnel Baird grew up in 1980s’ Bedford Stuyvesant, a Brooklyn neighborhood that was riddled with vacant buildings and crime at the time. His family would use the oven to heat the apartment because their building had a dysfunctional HVAC system. Today, Baird is the founder and CEO of BlocPower, a startup that helps electrify buildings across America, and he’s on a mission to ensure that everyone gets heating and cooling—the green way. No fossil fuels, no gas, just clean electricity.

Donnel Baird [Photo: BlocPower]

Baird founded BlocPower in 2014—but the company’s agenda just became even more relevant with the passage of Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which includes $6 billion toward home energy retrofits. The company replaces aging systems that run on fossil fuels with more efficient alternatives like electric heat pumps and solar panels, saving building owners between 10% and 50% on energy costs.

Earlier this month, BlocPower partnered with the city of Ithaca, New York, to electrify every single building in the city (that’s over 6,000 homes and buildings) by 2030. The company is projected to cut about 40% of the city’s overall carbon footprint—saving approximately 160,000 tons of carbon dioxide by 2030, or the equivalent of about 35,000 cars driven in a year. It’s a tall order, but it’s only the beginning.

Buildings account for almost 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. And a whopping 80% of domestic energy comes from fossil fuels. In the winter of 2019–2020, about 5.5 million households in the United States used oil as their main heating fuel, almost entirely in the Northeast. “Literally, a truck will pull up and dump oil into the basement,” says Baird. “365 days a year, they are burning oil in the basement.”

We know by now that burning fossil fuels releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, which causes global warming. So, the roadmap is obvious: To slow climate change, we need to decarbonize our buildings. And to decarbonize our buildings, we need to electrify them.

For Baird, the answer lies in heat pumps. These devices use a small amount of electricity to move heat from one place to another. Heat pumps have been around for decades, but they’re getting more efficient. In fact, your fridge is a heat pump, as is your air conditioning, except they only push heat in one direction. Heat pumps do both: they can heat in the winter and cool in the summer. (Baird wants to rebrand them as “climate pumps.”)

[Image: Tim Vienckowski/Emerson Collective]

When heat pumps are installed, sometimes coupled with solar panels, the need for radiators or air conditioning—and fuel-burning boilers—is gone. “We want to turn buildings into a Tesla,” says Baird. “If Tesla can take the fossil fuel engine out of an automobile, we can now take all the fossil fuel equipment out of a building.”

[Photo: courtesy BlocPower]

In order to figure out how much energy a building uses and where usage can be improved, BlocPower uses a machine-learning platform that helps determine which retrofits will save the most energy at scale. For example, in New York City, the company has access to a 3D map of tens of thousands of buildings, which it uses to run digital simulations. It then installs small sensors in key locations inside the actual buildings to gather data like temperature, humidity, pressure, and air quality. (The sensors remain in place so BlocPower can continue to optimize the building remotely and give homeowners real-time data.) Backed by up to $50 million from Goldman Sachs’ Urban Investment Group, it leases the smart equipment to building owners, who pay it off over 10 to 15 years.

[Image: courtesy BlocPower]

Baird says there’s not a single building in the U.S. that can’t be electrified, whether it’s a single-family home, a multi-family coop, or a 100-year-old church. (The only types of building BlocPower doesn’t work with are skyscrapers and factories, not because it can’t be done but because other companies are already on it.) “We have all the hardware and the software we need to reduce gas emissions,” he says. “This is something we can do now, it’s a question of will. ”

When Baird got started in the early 2010s, the cost of a retrofit was much higher than the savings from the shift to clean energy. Back then, Baird spent three and half years working as an energy-efficiency consultant for the Obama administration, where he managed a national initiative that invested in energy-efficiency improvements in underserved communities. This was part of The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, an unprecedented stimulus package developed in the wake of the Great Recession.

Baird explains the goal was to hire and train unemployed union workers to electrify buildings around the country. But retrofitting costs were too high, in large part due to the sheer complexity of the building analysis, all done manually by a cohort of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers. (While that project wasn’t able to actually electrify buildings, the Recovery Act’s $4.5 billion to modernize the electric power grid paved the way for the work BlocPower is doing today.)

To date, the company has retrofitted over 1,200 buildings (which include more than 10,000 individual apartments) in disadvantaged communities across New York City. And because the equipment needs wifi to work, every home BlocPower electrifies ends up automatically connected to the internet. This gives BlocPower a parallel mission to bridge the digital divide in low-income neighborhoods. Just this week, BlocPower finished installing community-owned wifi networks for 2,500 residents in two NYCHA housing developments in the Bronx (that’s 1,200 apartments across 10 buildings). “When working with low-income communities, you have to provide internet,” he says. “This digital divide leads to a clean energy divide.”

In the end, the retrofit of an average individual home costs anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000, for which BlocPower provides financing, “like a green mortgage,” as Baird says. In return, homeowners save on their energy bills, but also on their carbon emissions.

[Photo: courtesy BlocPower]

In White Plains, New York, BlocPower recently retrofitted St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. Built in 1928, the church was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. So BlocPower installed a series of heat pumps. The church saved 55% on its utility bills, and reduced 70% of its greenhouse gas emissions. The total retrofit cost about $550,000, but as the assembly hall is now air-conditioned, the church can rent it out for weddings and events all year-round, bringing in about $35,000 in new revenue each year.

[Photo: courtesy BlocPower]

Baird has retrofit projects underway in 24 other cities, from Oakland and Milwaukee to Philadelphia. Ultimately, he wants every U.S. city to join what he calls the “decarbonization race,” where more and more cities would take action to electrify all of their buildings.

But for the process to work on such a wide scale, Baird says America needs “an army” of highly skilled green infrastructure workers. In line with Biden’s plan for a modern-day Civilian Conservation Corps (which put millions of young men back to work after the Great Depression), BlocPower recently announced its $37 million climate tech workforce program. Dubbed Pathways Civilian Climate Corps, the program is already working with low-income communities across the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, teaching 1,000 individuals in gun-impacted neighborhoods how to install green infrastructure.

“We need World War II-style mobilization of resources and personnel,” says Bard. “Climate change is the fight of our generation.”