New York entrepreneur seeks to bring energy efficiency to more communities


NEW YORK, July 8 (Reuters) - Entrepreneur Donnel Baird wants to bring green ways of building to communities of color in the United States, who are often the last to benefit from sustainability initiatives.

After seeing Al Gore's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" in college, Baird decided on his mission - to tackle both climate change and wealth disparities. His company BlocPower helps small apartment buildings and other urban structures become more energy efficient. He wants all communities to benefit from the transition to cleaner energy, he said.

"Who gets those jobs? Who gets the wealth that gets created from that transition?" Baird said. "As people of color, are we going to be at the forefront of that or are we going to be like left behind? ... I think we should lead it."

BlocPower, founded in 2014, aims to go public in seven years, with the ultimate goal of reducing greenhouse gases and turning "buildings into Teslas," Baird said.

"We're putting in a smart, modern, all-electric heating system and cooling system that you can operate from your smartphone that's going to reduce this building's greenhouse gas emissions by 70%," said Baird, next to a home of a recent client.

St. Margaret Mary Church in New York City's South Bronx neighborhood had spent thousands of dollars a year on oil and was about to spend $90,000 to repair the boiler before deciding to switch to clean energy. It financed equipment through BlocPower, which offers 15-20 year loans for projects.

"It has brought down our electrical costs and we don't have a boiler to deal with or oil to have delivered," said Father Rudolph Gonzalez.

BlocPower recently raised $63 million in debt and equity, marking one of the largest early-stage funding rounds by a Black entrepreneur. The bulk of the money will go toward financing energy-efficient heating and cooling systems for BlocPower clients.

One of Baird's highlights is when former President Bill Clinton in 2019 toured and praised the system BlocPower installed at Cornerstone Baptist church in Brooklyn.

But challenges remain, Baird noted. Convincing minorities of the benefits of investing with BlocPower after the 2009 financial crisis is not easy.

"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?" Baird said.

"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."

Reporting by Alicia Powell; Editing by Richard Chang

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