Block by block, he aims to fight injustice and save the planet
Solar panels and clean heat shouldn’t be limited to the wealthy, says Donnel Baird, who’s bringing green power to low-income neighborhoods
BROOKLYN — 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.
After collecting more than $60 million in his latest round of fundraising, Baird is eyeing an expansion to dozens more cities, including Philadelphia; Milwaukee; Oakland, Calif. He is not shy about his ambitions. Working building by building, block by block, he aims to address injustice and help save the planet.
An activist grows in Brooklyn
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.
In a classmate, Mariana Arcaya, Baird found the connection he needed. A fellow New Yorker and also a child of an immigrant, she bonded with Baird over their shared outrage about the world’s injustices. She talked him into driving nine hours to protest at a 2002 meeting of the World Economic Forum in New York. And when former vice president Al Gore’s climate-change documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” came out in 2006, Arcaya forced Baird to watch it with her — twice.
“She sat me down and was like, ‘This is incredibly important,' ” Baird said. “None of the other stuff you care about will matter unless you figure out how to solve it.”
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.”
Yet he kept running into logistical problems. The federal retrofitting process felt too small and too slow. Renovations would uncover additional complications the policy wasn’t designed to fix.
If working for the government wasn’t the solution, he would just have to find another way.
Building a business
When in 2011 Baird announced he was enrolling at the business school at Columbia University, Arcaya was stunned. Where was the man who’d driven through the night to protest billionaires meeting at the World Economic Forum? What had happened to fighting inequality and changing systems and saving the world?
Don’t worry, Baird told his best friend. He was still going to do all that. He had a plan.
He knew the tools existed to make buildings green, healthy and efficient. Replacing oil and gas furnaces with electric appliances such as heat pumps — which pull air from the outdoors and warm it over an evaporator coil — dramatically lowered heating bills and reduced carbon emissions. Rooftop solar panels provided cheap, clean energy to buildings, and whatever wasn’t used could be sold back into the grid. Smart thermostats, light sensors and other forms of artificial intelligence made the new equipment even more cost-effective.
But high upfront costs meant those tools were out of reach for people in neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, even though they saved money in the long run.
This was an investment opportunity waiting to be seized.
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.
He would audit families’ energy use to determine the most efficient way to meet their needs and build software that could calculate the best way to engineer and finance the project. He would partner with the high-tech architecture firms that small homeowners usually couldn’t afford, using tools such as 3-D scans and digital models to bring down construction costs. He would forge agreements with utilities and cities that would enable him to earn even more money by helping those institutions meet their emissions reduction goals. And he would provide job training to residents in the communities he served, to ensure that the benefits of each project lasted long after the work was complete.
BlocPower launched while Baird was still a student at Columbia. He skipped one of his final business school exams to give a presentation at the White House. It turned out to be the right decision; he walked away with a $2 million contract from the Energy Department.
Yet when Baird went to fundraise, he felt “like a fish out of water” in the mostly White, wealthy worlds of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Prospective funders told him that low-income buildings were seen as bad investments. The unspoken message seemed to be that he was seen as a bad investment.
But Baird is nothing if not tenacious; a Black man in America has to be, he said. So he studied the systems that had excluded people like him and figured out how to work within them. He went to the banks that had denied loans to Black people and the corporations that profited from fossil fuels and used their wealth to create change.
It was hard. But in 2015, when his son Nash was born, he got a powerful new motivation to keep trying.
“I have to find a way in the real world to come up with a plan that is going to preserve the life chances for myself and my children and my grandchildren,” Baird said.
So Baird learned to call community centers “small and medium enterprise buildings” and not to wear a suit to meetings in California. He found many of the skills he learned as a community organizer translated into the business world. He also had a “secret weapon” — an understanding of what it takes to create change.
Ultimately, Baird garnered millions from investment funds and venture capitalists. A crowdfunding campaign launched this month has already raised $200,000.
“It’s not often you find someone with the skills, the ambition and just the fortitude to take all these things on,” said Margaret Anadu, chair of the Urban Investment Group at Goldman Sachs and one of Baird’s early backers. “The fact that he can wrap all of that up into an investment opportunity that is also commercial and profitable and scalable — it’s just a level of innovation that is pretty unique.”
“People talk about a win-win,” she added. “And with Donnel, it’s a win-win-win-win-win.”
The foundations for change
Not long after his initial visit to Bright Light, Baird got a frantic call from Eddie Karim, the church’s pastor. The boiler had finally broken — right in the middle of the snowiest month New York had seen in years.
Baird authorized an emergency heat pump installation for the church, and a few days later, Karim watched as a work crew fanned out across the building.
Luke Ericson and Devin Conroy, who use high-tech construction tools, descended into the boiler room.
“Whoa,” Ericson said.
An ancient 1,300-gallon oil tank filled the first room. Beyond it, a rusty boiler that looked to be 50 years old — far exceeding the state-recommended lifetime of about 15 years.
“Yeah,” said Conroy. “It’s not very ideal.”
But he’d seen it before. More than 70 percent of buildings in the city still run on oil- and gas-powered boilers, many of them in equally bad condition.
And compared with the rest of the work that needed to be done on the century-old structure, this was an easy fix. The oil tank could be scrapped and the boiler retrofitted with electric heat pumps, which would slash the amount of energy needed to heat the three-story building. If New York switched its grid to renewable energy sources, Bright Light’s heat would be completely green — no carbon emissions at all.
Upstairs, Karim watched Ericson take a 3-D scan of the sanctuary, resplendent even in disrepair. Intricate mosaics decorate the floors; LED lightbulbs — Karim’s first step toward sustainability — gleam in the chandeliers.
“It’s special, isn’t it?” Karim asked. Once a synagogue serving the neighborhood’s Jewish immigrant community, it became a Baptist church when the area’s demographics shifted. Residents have worshiped in the space for exactly 100 years.
Bright Light is a beloved institution in Brownsville, one of Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods: It operates a day care and a senior citizens program and runs food drives and vaccine information sessions during the covid-19 pandemic.
But the congregation has dwindled, and the church suffers from the same lack of resources that has constrained the rest of the community. “The main problem now is decay,” Karim said. “It sounds bad, but it’s what happens when people feel defeated.”
That’s why he rebuffs suggestions that he sell the building and relocate somewhere easier to maintain. He wants to show that the problems are fixable, that an old and struggling structure can have a sustainable future. The boiler replacement alone is expected to save Bright Light about 20 percent on its utility bills and reduce emissions 70 percent.
“My heart’s desire is to get rid of fossil fuels,” he said. “To be able to be an example to the community.”
He’s come to embrace Baird’s vision of what Bright Light could be, after the heat pumps are humming and the thermostats are set and the solar panels are soaking up sunshine. An antenna atop the building will measure weather conditions and send signals to the heating system to optimize its energy use. Batteries in the basement will store energy and sell excess back to the grid. Schoolkids and community groups will gather in the church for its cool air and WiFi. The church that has long served as an anchor for Brownsville will also become a springboard for change.
“It’s such a concrete example of what it would look like to bring about climate justice,” said Arcaya, who is now a professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A Bronx family is now saving 15 percent on their energy bill. A White Plains church has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent and is earning new income hosting summer weddings now that it has an effective air-conditioning system.
If he closes his eyes, Baird can envision Brooklyn in 2030. Every building is electric, and asthma rates are low. Rooftop solar panels connect homes to a neighborhood microgrid, which is run by a local energy cooperative, which is owned by residents. People earn extra income by selling their carbon savings as credits to big industries struggling to reduce their own emissions.
“We can create and build a new industry in these neighborhoods,” Baird said. “And they can own it and control it and build wealth by saving the planet.”