Fighting Climate Change, One Building At A Time | WAMC

Fighting Climate Change, One Building At A Time

Oct 18, 2020
Originally published on October 22, 2020 3:41 pm

When Donnel Baird was in his 20s, he had twin passions, and he didn't want to choose between them. "I vowed that I was going to try to combine my passion for Black civil rights with trying to do something about climate change," he says.

He's doing it now, with a company that he founded called BlocPower. He's attacking one of the seemingly intractable sources of America's greenhouse emissions: old residential buildings. And he's focusing on neighborhoods that don't have a lot of money to invest.

Baird wants to show me how it's done. So we meet in New York City, in front of a classic Brooklyn brownstone in the Crown Heights neighborhood. "It's still largely African American, West Indian," Baird says of the building's residents.

The building is four stories tall, with two apartments on each floor. It's a cooperative that's legally designated as affordable housing. BlocPower looked at this building and saw a business opportunity.

"We thought that they were wasting a lot of money paying for natural gas, which whey were using for heating; also to heat their hot water," he says.

Baird's company went to the people who live here, the co-op owners, with a proposal. It laid out money-saving changes to the building's heating and cooling systems. An organization called Solar One calculated the impact of solar panels on the roof. "Solar panels aren't just for rich people or for white people. They're for everybody," Baird says.

The best part: The project would pay for itself. In fact, BlocPower promised that the co-op owners' bills would go down. And they'd be helping the planet, with lower greenhouse emissions.

Shaughn Dolcy, who lives in this building, was sold. "It's the only way to go," he says. "There's no other way." He says most of his neighbors liked it, too. "I would say 90 percent" of them, he says. "You maybe had, like, one particular family, they weren't really interested in getting anything progressive or new. They were on-board at the end of the day, though."

So BlocPower and several contractors went to work. They installed a set of efficient electric-powered heat pumps to handle the cooling and most of the heating. Heat pumps capture heat and move it from one space to another in either direction: During winter, they heat a home, and in summer they cool it. The building now has solar panels that are elevated high enough that people still can gather for parties underneath them.

"The result is, they save tens of thousands of dollars a year on their energy costs," Baird says.

In many of BlocPower's projects, the company finances the entire investment, so building owners don't have to pay anything upfront. They pay back BlocPower's investment over time through their utility bills, yet those bills still are lower than before the changes. The new equipment saves that much money.

The key to such deals, Baird says, isn't so much the solar power. It's the heat pumps. "The heat pump is like the silver bullet for dealing with climate change," he says.

The changes cut the carbon footprint of this building by 40% right away. Just as important, going all-electric opens the door to further reductions. If the electricity to power those heat pumps comes from solar, wind, hydro or nuclear, it'll be a zero-carbon building.

Baird says this outcome is common. Dramatic improvement is possible practically anywhere. "We gotta scale this up! And fast!" he says. "Scale and speed! Because we have only so much time in terms of climate."

He's attacking a problem that's proven intractable in the past. Even when it makes economic sense to install energy-saving equipment, it often doesn't happen.

Baird learned this the hard way a decade ago. In the early days of the Obama Administration, he was helping to run a multi-billion-dollar program that was supposed to fund green energy retrofits of buildings. "A lot of it didn't work, bluntly," he says.

The biggest problem they encountered, Baird says, resulted from the fact that every old building is different, due to changes that owners and tenants and made in that building over the years. Figuring out what each one needed took a lot of time and money. Landlords balked at that up-front cost. Projects never got off the ground.

BlocPower is his attempt to overcome those obstacles. The company is deploying new technology, such as custom-built software that can come up with a prescription for each building more quickly and easily. It's created new ways to finance these projects, so it can borrow money more easily to cover the upfront costs. This helps get landlords and residents onboard.

Finally, there's a marketing secret, something that he learned as a community organizer: building trust.

"In this project we spent — I want to say — fourteen months working with just community buildings and non-profits to build up a track record and credibility, so that building owners could trust us," he says.

Cathy Higgins, research director for the New Buildings Institute, in Portland, Oregon, has been pushing for energy-saving upgrades in America's buildings for 30 years. She says that "there's a lot of change that's happening, that I've never seen in my career before, that makes me incredibly optimistic."

Companies like BlocPower, she says, are part of that change. They can make energy-saving changes that many building owners avoid. "Why do [building owners] have to be the experts on a furnace? On a boiler?" Higgins says. It's often better to let an expert handle those systems, like letting the Uber driver worry about your transportation.

But the biggest change, Higgins says, is "the shift in the dialogue from kilowatt-hours to carbon." Building owners now understand that the goal is not just saving energy. They're helping to save the world from catastrophic climate change.

BlocPower is targeting mid-size buildings, like small apartment buildings, community centers, and churches, almost exclusively in low-income neighborhoods. They've worked on a thousand buildings so far, in half a dozen cities. Like many start-up companies, it's relying on venture capital to get off the ground and isn't yet profitable. But Baird thinks it will be.

"We're going to be like Uber! We're going to be a big company! On heat pumps!" Baird says. He turns mock-serious: "We got plans, man. We got plans." And then he cracks up. It's almost as though he can't believe his own audacity, taking this on, aiming to retrofit buildings by the thousands — or by the hundreds of thousands.

: 10/22/20

An earlier version of this story stated that BlocPower removed a gas-burning boiler from the building in Crown Heights. In fact, it remains in place to supplement the new heat pumps. Although BlocPower often finances such projects, in this case the cooperative paid the upfront cost with its own funds plus tax credits for renewable energy. Contractors that specialize in solar and heat pump installation did the actual work.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A profile now of a onetime community organizer in New York City. His name is Donnel Baird, and he's a natural. He might walk by a woman sitting outside her home, and before you know it, they're talking about the election.

DONNEL BAIRD: I'm Donnel. I'll reach out, but are you going to get out the vote?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, we are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But this is not an election story. Baird is taking his skills and taking on global warming by starting a company that turns big-city apartment buildings green. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: When Donnel Baird was in his 20s not that long ago, he cared a lot about two things.

BAIRD: I vowed that I was going to try to combine my passion for Black civil rights with trying to do something about climate change.

CHARLES: And it is coming together in his new company, BlocPower. It cleans up buildings in neighborhoods without a lot of money, like this part of Crown Heights in Brooklyn.

BAIRD: It is still largely, you know, African American, West Indian.

CHARLES: We stop in front of a classic Brooklyn brownstone - four stories, eight apartments. It's a co-op that's legally designated as affordable housing. BlocPower looked at this building and saw a business opportunity.

BAIRD: We thought that they were wasting a lot of money paying for natural gas, which they were using for heating - also to heat up their hot water.

CHARLES: So Baird's company went to the people who live here, the co-op owners, with a proposal. BlocPower told them, if you let us manage your heating and cooling, we'll install new energy-saving equipment. We'll put solar panels on the roof.

BAIRD: Solar panels just aren't for rich people or for white people. You know, it's for everybody.

CHARLES: And the best part - the people in the building wouldn't have to pay anything upfront. In fact, BlocPower promised their bills would go down, and they'd be helping the planet with lower greenhouse emissions. Shaughn Dolcy, who lives in the building, was sold on it.

SHAUGHN DOLCY: Because that's the only way to go. There's no other way.

CHARLES: He says most of his neighbors liked it, too.

DOLCY: I would say about 90%. Maybe had, like, one particular family a little bit - you know, they weren't really interested in getting anything progressive or new. They were on board at the end of the day, though.

CHARLES: So BlocPower went to work - tore out the gas-burning boiler in the basement and installed a set of efficient, electric-powered heat pumps instead, put up the solar panels.

BAIRD: The result is they save tens of thousands of dollars a year on their energy costs.

CHARLES: And yet what they do pay is still enough that BlocPower can earn back its investment. The new equipment saves that much money.

The key to this - is it the solar on the roof or is it the heat pumps?

BAIRD: The key is the heat pumps. The heat pump is, like, the silver bullet for dealing with climate change.

CHARLES: Climate change is what's driving this. BlocPower cut the carbon footprint of this building right away by 44%. And eventually, if the electricity to power those heat pumps comes from solar or wind or nuclear, it'll be a zero-carbon building. Baird says this is typical. Dramatic improvement is possible practically anywhere.

BAIRD: We got to scale this up and fast - scale and speed - 'cause we only have so much time on - in terms of climate.

CHARLES: Buildings are a huge part of the climate change puzzle. Heating and cooling them accounts for over a third of the country's total greenhouse emissions. And yet, even when cutting those emissions would save money, it often just doesn't happen, which Baird learned the hard way when he was working in the Obama administration a decade ago. They had billions of dollars available to help fund green energy retrofits of buildings.

BAIRD: A lot of it didn't work, bluntly.

CHARLES: The biggest problem, he says, is that every old building is different. Figuring out what each one needs takes a lot of time and money. Landlords balked at that upfront cost. Projects never got off the ground.

And BlocPower is your way to fix it.

BAIRD: BlocPower is the way to fix it.

CHARLES: The fix is partly technology, he says. BlocPower built software that lets them come up with a prescription for each building much more quickly and easily. They've also created new ways to finance these projects so they can cover all that upfront cost. It helps get landlords and residents on board. And finally, there's a marketing secret, something he learned as a community organizer - building trust.

BAIRD: And so in this project we spent, I want to say, 14 months working with just community buildings and nonprofits in order to build up a track record and credibility so that building owners in the community could trust us.

CHARLES: BlocPower is targeting mid-sized buildings, like small apartment buildings, churches, in low-income neighborhoods. It's worked on a thousand buildings so far in half a dozen cities. It's not yet earning a profit, but it is growing.

BAIRD: We're going to try to scale this thing. We're going to try to do it. We're trying to save the planet.

CHARLES: What's your plan? How big are you going to get?

BAIRD: It's going to be like Uber. We're going to be big. We're going to be a big company on heat pumps. We got plans, man. We got plans (laughter).

CHARLES: It almost seems like he can't believe his own audacity taking this on. It means retrofitting buildings by the thousands - by the hundreds of thousands.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHARKS KEEP MOVING'S "FIRST INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.