Innovation

How Donnel Baird raised over $250 million in funding to create sustainable living spaces

BY Preta Peace Namasaba June 21, 2024 4:40 PM EDT

Climate change and sustainability have been at the forefront of 21st-century discourse. While there is much focus on making businesses and consumer practices more sustainable, the sustainability of our living spaces is often overlooked. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that the average American spends 93% of their life indoors, and about one-third of American households struggle to pay their energy bills. Housing is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, with nearly 30% of U.S. greenhouse gases coming from heating, cooling, and operating buildings. Sustainable design reduces the environmental impact of buildings and ensure a brighter future for the next generations.

To combat climate change, Donnel Baird founded BlocPower, a tech company that enhances homes and buildings in underserved communities to address the environmental crisis. He has since raised over $250 million in funding to transform buildings in low-income communities into energy-efficient and sustainable living spaces.

“The question is, can we build that trust with Black and brown communities and say we’re going to come into your building and do something that’s good for you and you can have a 15-year financial relationship with us and we’re not going to screw you over? We get to solve the climate crisis and we get to make Black and brown communities and low-income white communities healthier, greener and wealthier. So that’s what BlocPower is about. And that’s what I’m about,” Baird explained his company’s mission.

The son of Guyana migrants, Baird grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. The family lived in a home with a faulty heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system and had to keep open the windows during winter. This technique expelled the carbon monoxide and harmful gases produced by the heating system and brought in fresh air. Although it was grossly ineffective, the ventilation method was used all over the city.

Baird’s parents had attained a decent education in Guyana and were appalled at the poor living conditions and street violence. At only six years old, Baird vividly recalls witnessing a teenager shoot another in the head. When his mother saw a mother and an infant being shot in the streets while she was on the way home from work, she decided to permanently relocate. She moved the family to Atlanta.

In Atlanta, Baird won a scholarship to attend a private high school in the affluent Buckhead neighborhood. He attended Duke University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history. After college, he became a community organizer in Brooklyn, giving back to the community.
Baird went on to volunteer for President Barrack Obama’s electoral campaign. He was at the forefront of the national movement that influenced the Department of Energy to extend green construction opportunities for the unemployed. Baird together with the Washington Interfaith Network persuaded the District of Columbia government to invest $100 million in its impoverished parts. He worked as National Field Director, Green Jobs at Change to Win Federation, National Get Out The Vote Director at SEIU, and Entrepreneur in Residence at Jalia Ventures.

Whilst studying for his MBA at Columbia University, Baird developed the idea to establish a company addressing energy poverty. He initially planned to replace gas with oil as the main source of energy in buildings. After understanding that oil was only a temporary solution, Baird opted for renewable energy such as solar, water, and wind. BlocPower’s mission to build sustainable American cities using climate technology was born.

The team at BlocPower carries out analyses to devise strategies to reduce energy use. They help households and organizations lower energy costs by endorsing clean energy sources like solar. The company provides expert engineering and financial services to municipal building and renovation businesses. It has refurbished more than 500 buildings in New York and finalized energy projects in over 1,200 buildings in 25 cities.

In November 2021, BlocPower partnered with the City of Ithaca, NY to retrofit its entire building stock of more than 6,000 buildings by 2030. It was the first large-scale, city-wide electrification initiative in the U.S. The company embarked on a similar retrofit project in Menlo Park, CA for 10,000 buildings, and several other large-scale decarbonization initiatives in Denver, Oakland, and San Jose the following year. In 2022, New York City Mayor Eric Adams awarded BlocPower’s Civilian Climate Corps a two-year, $108 million contract to train 3,000 city residents for clean energy jobs and to help reduce gun violence. It expanded upon an earlier $37 million contract which launched the Civilian Climate Corps, a program to hire and train victims of gun violence from New York City. In the first year, they trained 1,700 people and provided 400 jobs. Gun violence in areas where the program was held decreased by 28%.

BlocPower has received support from prominent investors such as Goldman Sachs and Microsoft’s Climate Innovation Fund. In 2023, the company announced a fundraising round of $150 million, including over $24 million of Series B corporate equity led by VoLo Earth Ventures and $130 million of debt financing led by Goldman Sachs. Within just a decade, BlocPower has managed to raise over $250 million of capital to finance building decarbonization in low-income communities. The company is not only working to conserve the environment but also helping homeowners save money by reducing energy bills and maintenance costs in the long run.

“Whenever someone wants to make a change, or do something new, nothing is guaranteed to turn out according to best laid plans. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. You can’t renovate a home without dust and mess, and, sometimes, lead, mold, and asbestos. We go into low income communities to finance and upgrade 100 year old buildings–and sometimes we run into 100 year old surprises lurking in the walls, or hiding in the basement. But I’m proud that at BlocPower, we always finish what we start, and we clean up messes. The biggest mess of all is the climate crisis,” Baird said about the process of making living spaces more sustainable.