Donnel Baird ’13, CEO and founder of BlocPower, a company striving to make buildings healthier, smarter, greener, and more valuable, said he recently introduced his family to one of his heroes: the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“FDR, as part of the New Deal, brought electricity to America,” Baird explained in a conversation with Columbia Business School Professor Bruce Kogut as part of the Business, AI, and Democracy initiative’s BAID @TheHub speaker series.
“FDR came up with a rural electric co-op model,” and that fundamentally democratized parts of the country that otherwise may have been left behind.
Baird was referring to the Rural Electrification Act passed in 1936, which allowed the federal government to extend low-cost loans to non- profit farming cooperatives to bring electricity to rural communities.
FDR’s influence extends to how Baird thinks about addressing today’s climate crisis and the racial wealth gap. “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?” Baird posited. “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.”
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. The technology has cut costs, shortened project timelines, and—crucially—made the benefits of these upgrades accessible to all.
Baird supports Congress’ passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and said the onus is now on the private sector to do its work finding solutions to address the climate crisis. BlocPower has so far raised cash through venture capitalists, but Baird is now 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 had dined recently 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. “Yes, I truly think there is a path through.”