This CEO wants to reduce emissions by turning buildings ‘into Teslas’

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This week:

  • This CEO wants to reduce emissions by turning buildings ‘into Teslas’
  • How green is high speed rail?
  • Ontario takes major step toward greening the steel industry

This CEO wants to reduce emissions by turning buildings ‘into Teslas’


From Jeff Bezos to Microsoft, CEO Donnel Baird has attracted big investors in his New York-based company BlocPower, which reduces emissions by electrifying many aspects of buildings across the United States. BlocPower does this through retrofits, and according to the company’s website, it has retrofitted more than 1,200 buildings since it was founded in 2014. Baird spoke with What On Earth host Laura Lynch about what BlocPower does, why he chose climate tech and how he stays connected to his roots in community organizing.

Q: Give me your elevator pitch: What’s the solution you’re trying to deliver on?

A: We turn buildings into Teslas. Just like Tesla has ripped the fossil fuel engine out of vehicles, we’re going to rip fossil fuel equipment out of your home. Fossil fuel equipment is poisoning your family with methane and nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. It’s also poisoning the planet with greenhouse gas emissions. And so we’re going to rip all that stuff out and replace it with all electric heating and cooling and hot water, and we’re going to save you money. While we’re doing it, we’re going to make your home healthier, more comfortable, more modern, and we’re going to save you a bunch of money on your energy expenses.

Q: Prior to launching BlocPower, you worked as a community organizer in Brooklyn and then as a consultant under US President Barack Obama. How did you end up in a climate tech startup?

A: I was a consultant to the US Department of Energy as they invested six and a half billion dollars in greening buildings across America — or trying to — and some of it worked really well, but a lot of it didn’t. And, you know, we needed a lot of Wall Street capital to invest — billions and billions of dollars. I think there’s like $90 billion of pension fund assets that folks wanted to invest. And a lot of the bankers would not invest that capital. They thought that green buildings investments were not a good investment at that time. And so we didn’t get all those programs to work as well as we’d hoped.

So after doing that for a few years, I went to Columbia Business School to try to learn enough about business and finance to figure out how to have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions. And while I was there, I learned that… in order to have a real impact at scale, to help invest the trillions of dollars that need to be invested in greening buildings across the United States, and across North America and Canada as well… it’s going to cost trillions of dollars to decarbonize real estate and buildings. And there just is no path to organizing that kind of capital to do anything unless there’s a for-profit motive and rationale. And so, while in business school, I kind of pivoted. It was painful, but I pivoted, and learned enough about business and finance and technology to kind of start my company.

Q: You started your career in social justice. I’m kind of curious to know how you’ve been able to hold onto the community organizer side of yourself while you’re knocking on the doors of Wall Street.

A: I think that it’s been interesting that some of the best managers and leadership skills actually rely on a lot of principles that are very similar to community organizing. Community organizing is really hard. You have nothing. You have to persuade a lot of other people who have a little more than nothing to become a team and partner with you around your shared agenda, and so you have to paint a clear vision for an achievable goal. That’s what you know [and] you’re supposed to do [it] on Wall Street. I’m not really motivated by money, and so that has been a little bit of a disconnect for me, you know, having to raise capital and communicate about how we’re going to make all this money and repay investors. I’m much more focused on the climate fight and creating jobs. But this is the path.

And if you think seriously about climate change, and what needs to happen to address climate change, you’ll see that aggressively engaging with Wall Street and Silicon Valley, as well as the government, must be a priority. And so we can’t be too self-righteous or too cool for school … we have to engage with the economy in a way that’s going to allow us to decarbonize.

– Manusha Janakiram

This interview has been edited and condensed.

reader feedback

In response to some of the stories we’ve written recently on non-fossil fuel heating solutions, Peter DA Warwick had this to say:

“I’d love to be able to replace my oil-fired boiler with a heat pump or solar power, but I just don’t have the money at present even with any grants. However, years ago when I had some spare cash, I got government grants to make my house more energy efficient by adding more insulation and replacing my windows.Doing this and making a few other improvements, plus climate change, has allowed me to reduce my heating oil consumption by 57 per cent over my baseline. It may not be as good as converting from fossil fuels, but for me it’s the next best thing.”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There’s also a radio show and podcast! From a climate tech startup to a community-driven food security project, people are fighting climate change at every level. Join What On Earth host Laura Lynch for some good news on the climate front. What On Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 pm, 1 pm in Newfoundland. Subscribe to your favorite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC lists.

The Big Picture: How green is high-speed rail?

There are a number of ways to reduce carbon emissions in the transportation sector, the most obvious being switching to electric cars. But environmental experts have long said that expanding public transit would have a greater impact. High-speed rail (ie 250 km/h or faster) is part of that equation, and China has constructed a massive high-speed rail network in short order.

Since 2008, it has built nearly 38,000 kilometers of track, connecting all its major cities. (The network is supposed to expand to 70,000 kilometers by 2035.) To give you a sense of China’s ambition, its closest competitor, Spain, has only about 3,200 kilometers of high-speed rail. Here in Canada, the concept remains a whisper of a promise — in 2019, the Liberal government announced plans for a high-frequency route between Toronto and Montreal, but studiously avoided calling it high-speed rail, lest people start to envision the type of train speeds clocked in Europe and Asia.

So, how environmentally friendly is this kind of travel? Most trains are powered by diesel and/or electricity, with the latter being the more sustainable option. According to the International Energy Agency, high-speed rail can be extremely effective in reducing emissions provided it meets key criteria. Namely, that the trains are powered by a green electrical grid; that they run frequently and near capacity; and that they dissuade people from driving or flying.

(Wang He/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Ontario eyes ‘green steel’ as way to catch up on cutting carbon emissions

(Ed Middleton/CBC)

Ontario’s steel industry is aiming for a dramatic reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions, a move that will help Premier Doug Ford’s government get closer to achieving its climate-change targets.

The three biggest industrial emitters of CO2 in Ontario are all steel plants. Steel production alone accounts for more than 40 per cent of all industrial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the province — more than the refinery, forestry, mining and chemical sectors combined.

But a push is on — funded in part by nearly $2 billion from provincial and federal taxpayers — to convert Ontario’s steel plants to using lower-carbon sources of energy. The expected reductions in CO2 emissions stand to make this the Ford government’s single-biggest initiative on climate change.

The latest step toward what’s being dubbed “green steel” is Ford’s announcement of a $500-million provincial government contribution to ArcelorMittal Dofasco in Hamilton, the biggest producer of flat-rolled steel in the country and the single-biggest industrial source of CO2 emissions in Ontario.

The plan is to convert Dofasco’s coal-fired blast furnaces to electric-powered systems by 2028.

“Carmakers are investing billions and billions of dollars searching for ways to reduce carbon emissions along their supply chain,” Ford said in a news conference last week. “Well, I have news for all of them. That search starts and ends right here in Hamilton with Dofasco Steel.”

Ford’s announcement comes six months after the federal government announced it’s putting $400 million into the Dofasco plant’s conversion, which means taxpayers are contributing about half of the $1.8-billion cost of the project.

the province and the federal government are also backstopping another coal-to-electricity conversion project at Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie, no. 2 on Ontario’s list of biggest industrial greenhouse gas emitters.

The projects will reduce the two steel plants’ combined annual CO2 emissions by as much as six megatonnes (Mt). Ontario needs to reduce its total annual emissions by about 18 Mt from current levels to meet the government’s target for 2030 under the Paris Accord.

“I think it’s a positive development,” said Keith Brooks, programs manager for Environmental Defense, a Toronto-based advocacy group. “The steel industry is a large emitter, it’s one of the harder-to-decarbonize sectors, and we’re not in a world where we’re trying to phase out steel.”

Even so, Brooks says the Ford government is still a long way from achieving its climate change targets, which are less ambitious than the previous Liberal government’s targets and those now set at the national level.

“We have no policy in place to increase the uptake of electric vehicles. We have no policies to reduce emissions from buildings. We have no policy, actually, to deal with emissions from industrial facilities,” said Brooks.

Steel production is carbon-intensive because the blast furnaces used in the smelting process are fueled by coal and coke (metallurgical coal).

Since Ontario’s electricity generating system is more than 90 per cent free of CO2 emissions, converting the steel plants’ coal-fired blast furnaces to electric arc furnaces will substantially reduce the carbon emissions.

“We will fundamentally change the way we make steel,” said Ron Bedard, president and CEO of ArcelorMittal Dofasco. “We will decommission our coal plants and our blast furnaces. Coal will not be used in our future processes here at Dofasco.”

The provincial government is also linking the steel conversion to the North American auto industry’s transition toward electric vehicles.

“The bottom line is this: if the car of the future is going to be electric, then the steel it’s made with needs to be electric, too,” said Vic Fedeli, the minister of economic development and trade.

The Ford government has faced frequent criticism for its approach to climate change after scrapping the previous government’s cap-and-trade system, fighting the federal carbon tax all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and watering down Ontario’s targets for reducing CO2 emissions.

Internal estimates by the provincial Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks last fall revealed that the government had put in place policies to achieve only 20 per cent of the emission reductions needed to hit its climate change target for 2030.

Officials say those figures did not account for the reductions to come from the steel sector.

Mike Crawley

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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