Fighting Climate Change, One Building At A Time To end climate change, millions of homes will have to stop heating with fossil fuels. It's possible, and can even save money. Entrepreneur Donnel Baird is trying to make it happen.
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Fighting Climate Change, One Building At A Time

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Fighting Climate Change, One Building At A Time

Fighting Climate Change, One Building At A Time

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A profile now of a onetime community organizer in New York City. His name is Donnel Baird, and he's a natural. He might walk by a woman sitting outside her home, and before you know it, they're talking about the election.

DONNEL BAIRD: I'm Donnel. I'll reach out, but are you going to get out the vote?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, we are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But this is not an election story. Baird is taking his skills and taking on global warming by starting a company that turns big-city apartment buildings green. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: When Donnel Baird was in his 20s not that long ago, he cared a lot about two things.

BAIRD: I vowed that I was going to try to combine my passion for Black civil rights with trying to do something about climate change.

CHARLES: And it is coming together in his new company, BlocPower. It cleans up buildings in neighborhoods without a lot of money, like this part of Crown Heights in Brooklyn.

BAIRD: It is still largely, you know, African American, West Indian.

CHARLES: We stop in front of a classic Brooklyn brownstone - four stories, eight apartments. It's a co-op that's legally designated as affordable housing. BlocPower looked at this building and saw a business opportunity.

BAIRD: We thought that they were wasting a lot of money paying for natural gas, which they were using for heating - also to heat up their hot water.

CHARLES: So Baird's company went to the people who live here, the co-op owners, with a proposal. BlocPower told them, if you let us manage your heating and cooling, we'll install new energy-saving equipment. We'll put solar panels on the roof.

BAIRD: Solar panels just aren't for rich people or for white people. You know, it's for everybody.

CHARLES: And the best part - the people in the building wouldn't have to pay anything upfront. In fact, BlocPower promised their bills would go down, and they'd be helping the planet with lower greenhouse emissions. Shaughn Dolcy, who lives in the building, was sold on it.

SHAUGHN DOLCY: Because that's the only way to go. There's no other way.

CHARLES: He says most of his neighbors liked it, too.

DOLCY: I would say about 90%. Maybe had, like, one particular family a little bit - you know, they weren't really interested in getting anything progressive or new. They were on board at the end of the day, though.

CHARLES: So BlocPower went to work - tore out the gas-burning boiler in the basement and installed a set of efficient, electric-powered heat pumps instead, put up the solar panels.

BAIRD: The result is they save tens of thousands of dollars a year on their energy costs.

CHARLES: And yet what they do pay is still enough that BlocPower can earn back its investment. The new equipment saves that much money.

The key to this - is it the solar on the roof or is it the heat pumps?

BAIRD: The key is the heat pumps. The heat pump is, like, the silver bullet for dealing with climate change.

CHARLES: Climate change is what's driving this. BlocPower cut the carbon footprint of this building right away by 44%. And eventually, if the electricity to power those heat pumps comes from solar or wind or nuclear, it'll be a zero-carbon building. Baird says this is typical. Dramatic improvement is possible practically anywhere.

BAIRD: We got to scale this up and fast - scale and speed - 'cause we only have so much time on - in terms of climate.

CHARLES: Buildings are a huge part of the climate change puzzle. Heating and cooling them accounts for over a third of the country's total greenhouse emissions. And yet, even when cutting those emissions would save money, it often just doesn't happen, which Baird learned the hard way when he was working in the Obama administration a decade ago. They had billions of dollars available to help fund green energy retrofits of buildings.

BAIRD: A lot of it didn't work, bluntly.

CHARLES: The biggest problem, he says, is that every old building is different. Figuring out what each one needs takes a lot of time and money. Landlords balked at that upfront cost. Projects never got off the ground.

And BlocPower is your way to fix it.

BAIRD: BlocPower is the way to fix it.

CHARLES: The fix is partly technology, he says. BlocPower built software that lets them come up with a prescription for each building much more quickly and easily. They've also created new ways to finance these projects so they can cover all that upfront cost. It helps get landlords and residents on board. And finally, there's a marketing secret, something he learned as a community organizer - building trust.

BAIRD: And so in this project we spent, I want to say, 14 months working with just community buildings and nonprofits in order to build up a track record and credibility so that building owners in the community could trust us.

CHARLES: BlocPower is targeting mid-sized buildings, like small apartment buildings, churches, in low-income neighborhoods. It's worked on a thousand buildings so far in half a dozen cities. It's not yet earning a profit, but it is growing.

BAIRD: We're going to try to scale this thing. We're going to try to do it. We're trying to save the planet.

CHARLES: What's your plan? How big are you going to get?

BAIRD: It's going to be like Uber. We're going to be big. We're going to be a big company on heat pumps. We got plans, man. We got plans (laughter).

CHARLES: It almost seems like he can't believe his own audacity taking this on. It means retrofitting buildings by the thousands - by the hundreds of thousands.

Dan Charles, NPR News. [POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio, as in a previous version of the online story, we say that BlocPower removed a gas-burning boiler from the building in Crown Heights. In fact, it remains in place to supplement the new heat pumps. Although BlocPower often finances such projects, in this case the cooperative paid the upfront cost with its own funds plus tax credits for renewable energy. Contractors that specialize in solar and heat pump installation did the actual work.]

(SOUNDBITE OF SHARKS KEEP MOVING'S "FIRST INSTRUMENTAL")

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