Power for the People

How one Columbia startup is helping low-income communities across New York generate a clean-energy revolution.

by Rebecca Shapiro Published Winter 2015-16
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Today, more than two years after graduation, Baird has a cofounder (his classmate Morris Cox ’13BUS); fourteen full-time employees, almost all of them Columbians (“though we are considering a Dartmouth alum for our next hire — commitment to diversity and all”); and an office in a New York State–subsidized clean-tech incubator. Most importantly, they are providing services to over three hundred buildings across the city.

In its current incarnation, BlocPower uses software to identify private buildings — such as schools, small businesses, nonprofits, houses of worship, or multifamily residences — in low-income neighborhoods that are energy-inefficient. It then groups four or more of those buildings into a “bloc,” which allows them to buy and install modern equipment more cheaply and efficiently. It analyzes the bloc’s energy usage, now and projected into the future, and determines the best new technology — such as solar panels and energy-efficient boilers — that will reduce the bloc’s energy consumption. The average savings per organization is a third to a half of annual energy costs, which is often hundreds of thousands of dollars. BlocPower then trains and hires members of the community to retrofit the buildings with updated equipment. BlocPower funds the equipment up front, and the organizations reimburse them over time using the money they save on energy bills.

“We’re essentially lenders,” Baird says. “It’s kind of like a rent-to-own program, but for energy equipment.”

In addition, BlocPower has partnered with Montefiore, a major hospital system in the Bronx, on a public-health project in that borough. The Bronx has the highest childhood-asthma rates in the area, potentially due to mold and outdated boilers that create pollution. Through patient data, Montefiore can target specific buildings that are likely contributing to the health problems. BlocPower’s job is to find and remove potential causes of sickness in the buildings.

“We’re replacing toxic boilers and using organic insulation. We’re hopeful that we’ll see a downturn in the number of hospital visits as a result,” says Baird.

Finally, BlocPower is working with the New York City government on two large-scale housing projects. With Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, it is retrofitting one thousand affordable-housing units in Brooklyn with updated technology — which will likely be subcontracted from fellow Columbia startup Radiator Labs — that allows for temperature regulation, which will drastically reduce heating costs. It is also working with the New York City affordable-housing system to build a micro-grid that will provide solar power to housing projects. This essentially allows solar power to work in tandem with more conventional power sources. The result will be a hybrid system; the buildings will be able to access power from the solar panels when possible, while still tapping into the standard utility grid that serves the rest of the city.

“The project with the housing system came about because the city lost a lawsuit, which found that the buildings were so outdated and poorly maintained that they were actually causing disabilities,” Baird says. “So they’re now legally mandated to think about other options.”

For Baird, the micro-grid project is also a bit of a homecoming. It will debut in Brownsville, where he spent five years thinking about the issues he’s now able to address in very concrete ways. But Baird is not the type to look back. In the conference room of BlocPower’s offices in Downtown Brooklyn, Baird has an unparalleled view: a panorama of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, the sleek glass skyscrapers, and the thousands of other smaller buildings that occupy Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan.

“Whenever I’m feeling complacent or stuck or just need inspiration, I come in here,” he says. “And I just think: look at all those buildings out there. We need to fix them, too.”

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