Donnel Baird ’13 has a sharp eye on the future but constantly thinks about the past. And it’s for that reason that the CEO and founder of BlocPower, a company striving to make buildings healthier, smarter, greener, and more valuable, recently took his wife and two kids — ages 7 and almost 1 — from New York City to Washington, DC, to absorb some history.
Baird wanted to introduce his children, particularly his older one, to some of his heroes: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but also Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States until his death in 1945.
“FDR, as part of the New Deal, brought electricity to America,” Baird explained in a conversation with Columbia Business School Professor Bruce Kogut at a recent event held by The Hub, a new CBS think tank. “FDR came up with a rural electric co-op model,” he said, adding that in doing so, he fundamentally democratized parts of the country that otherwise may not have had a chance.
What Baird was talking about is the Rural Electrification Act, which Congress passed in May 1936 as arguably one of the most important pieces of legislation within the New Deal. It allowed the federal government to extend low-cost loans to farmers who had come together to form nonprofit cooperatives for the purpose of bringing electricity to rural parts of the United States. Back then, it changed the lives of countless communities, giving them security, agency, and independence, but Baird knows that the influence of FDR’s thinking doesn’t necessarily stop there.
“FDR is one of my personal heroes, and when I fast-forward to today, and think about the climate crisis and the racial wealth gap and AI, I can’t help but wonder: Could you have cooperatively owned green energy utilities that are owned and operated by people in Harlem or the Bronx, for example?” he said. “I think if we gave more citizens an opportunity to own equity in local entities that are providing green infrastructure, facilitated by the federal government, then citizens would have a different kind of relationship to their energy providers, to energy generally, and to their local communities and government.”
Baird started BlocPower during his second year at CBS. He had previously worked for the Obama campaign as a community organizer in Brooklyn, where he grew up. During that time, he’d already fostered a passion for green technology and the green economy, and the power of politics made him ponder ways in which he could be a force for good in a rapidly changing world.
In 2011, he enrolled at the Business School. The wounds of the Great Financial Crisis were still fresh, and many conversations both in the classroom and beyond centered on the role of banks and the responsibility of government. He remembers having the opportunity to hear from — and, in some cases, be in conversations with — people like Paul Volcker, who had served as chair of the Federal Reserve, and Jamie Dimon, chair and chief executive of JPMorgan Chase.
“I was barely educated in capitalism,” he said, noting that he’d even managed to fail one of his core classes at CBS. But at the same time, he kept asking himself whether, within the confines and constraints of the system of capitalism that he was gradually becoming acquainted with, it would be possible to “get something serious done for climate change.”
Almost a decade on, he’s starting to learn that, yes, it certainly is possible.
Since 2014, BlocPower has been using proprietary technology to analyze, finance, and upgrade homes and buildings with the latest in energy-efficient electric technology and appliances. By doing so, the company has cut costs, shortened project timelines, and — crucially — made the benefits of these upgrades accessible to all. It’s retrofitted and upgraded thousands of buildings, relying on a financing model that enables owners to stretch out repayments to make them affordable.
Buildings should be at the very center of our collective effort to tackle climate change, Baird argued. And the statistics corroborate his point: Last year’s United Nations Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction found that the sector accounted for over 34 percent of energy demand and around 37 percent of energy and process-related CO2 emissions in 2021.
This is tragic, but Baird knows that it also represents a rich opportunity, and BlocPower is determined to exploit that. Indeed, he feels like business leaders — all business leaders — have a duty to think big when it comes to the potential ways in which technology can be used to improve the world.
As for politics now, he said Washington, to a great extent, has already done all it can. The baton has in some senses been handed over to the private sector. In November 2021, Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal to rebuild the country’s aging roads, bridges, and rails to generally improve transportation and infrastructure. The deal’s goals include expanding access to clean drinking water, ensuring every American can benefit from high-speed internet, tackling the climate crisis, advancing environmental justice, and investing in communities that have too often been left behind.
Baird is sold but also knows that this is just a first step. “I love the president. Look at what he’s done in the last two years. Look at what has been accomplished. He’s delivered,” he said. “And now the onus is on us, as the private sector, to take it from here. We need to find a way to come together as Americans and exploit that opportunity.”
He’s under no illusion that big ambition will also need big backers, though. BlocPower has so far raised cash through the venture capital world, but now Baird is thinking on a different scale. “VC just isn't going to get us there on climate change. It’s too big. We need to find other forms of early-stage capital,” he said. Without giving too much away, he mentioned that he’s had the chance to have dinner with Jeff Bezos, who’s already pledged billions of dollars to fighting climate change. “I’m asking myself, is there a path here to solve some of these problems using new technology strategies, with sound corporate governance,” Baird said. “And yes, I truly think there is a path through.”