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Donnel Baird '13, Founder and CEO, Blocpower discusses building trust in the energy industry through inclusive growth opportunities with Richard Witten '75CC, Founder and Senior Managing Director, Columbia Entreprenuership at the 'Restoring Trust: New Realities and New Possibilites in Business Leadership" conference. For more videos from the conference, please view our video library.
By Samantha Marshall
March 20, 2017
With a new administration determined to roll back America’s involvement in the Paris Accord and an EPA chief who questions the science of climate change, the next four years look challenging for current environmental policies. Visions of a drastically deregulated energy industry, loss of tax subsidies for alternatives, and a resurgence of the more polluting forms of energy, such as coal, are leaving many environmental advocates gasping for good news about progress in addressing climate change.
But at least two leaders in the industry are breathing fresh air into this otherwise bleak landscape: Donnel Baird ’13, founder of Blocpower, a startup dedicated to clean energy retrofits in urban areas, and Jim Rogers, former President, CEO and Chairman of Duke Energy, who broke ranks with his industry more than a decade ago to acknowledge the perils of global warming and push for regulatory measures.
Both Mr. Baird and Mr. Rogers spoke at the Bernstein Center’s November 2016 conference, Restoring Trust: New Realities and New Possibilities for Business Leadership, where panel topics ranged from stealing goals in soccer to falsifying emissions tests at Volkswagen. They represent what can be accomplished when business steps up to do what’s right even as the government fails, and demonstrate how, when innovation and enterprise are balanced with social conscience, everybody wins.
“Climate change is the single biggest challenge to our sector,” said Mr. Rogers who, in 2009, in his role as Chairman of Edison Electrical Institute, got the organization to change its position and support federal climate change regulation. “I pushed so hard that they asked me to step down.”
“Climate change is the single biggest challenge to our sector.”
“Inefficient buildings are the primary driver of carbon emissions, but the inner city is a fragmented market that’s hard to solve,” said Mr. Baird, who has nevertheless managed to turn hundreds of buildings green throughout New York City and, most recently, Atlanta, with reduced carbon emissions and profits from solar electricity sales, 51% of which went back to residents.
Mr. Rogers makes sure such ideas are shared amongst every major global environmental organization, agency and committee that is focusing on real solutions for climate change. He currently serves as chair of the Global Sustainable Electricity Partnership, a nonprofit organization composed of the world’s leading electricity utilities. Recognized as an outspoken and accessible voice for business and policy leaders alike, Rogers earned the reputation as a “CEO Statesman” and has testified more than 20 times before U.S. Congressional Committees, and addressed international forums including the United Nations General Assembly, the World Economic Forum and the Clinton Global Initiative.
But he doesn’t just talk the talk. Over the course of his 35 years as a CEO in the electric utility industry, he has delivered an average total shareholder return of more than 12 percent per year by focusing on sustainable growth, stakeholder engagement and business solutions to environmental challenges. For example, under his tenure between 2006 and 2013, Duke Energy invested $5 billion in renewable energy like solar and wind power.
One of his proudest achievements though is “Envision Charlotte,” the first-of-its-kind public-private collaboration created in 2010. Duke Energy, Cisco, and Charlotte Center City Partners teamed up to make commercial buildings in Charlotte’s urban core more energy efficient. Mr. Rogers and the co-creators of this pilot program believed that, by reducing waste in these areas, they could lower the cost of doing business in Charlotte, resulting in the creation of greater economic development and environmental benefits. The effectiveness of this smart energy approach has led to a movement, and now 89 cities in the U.S. have committed to reducing energy use by 20% in five years.
As a result of these large-scale greening efforts, Duke Energy has been recognized as a leader in sustainability – balancing the “triple bottom line” of people, planet and profits. And in 2010 and 2011, the company was named to the elite Dow Jones Sustainability World Index.
“I believe in taking a stakeholder approach,” Mr. Rogers told the panel of fellow business leaders. “When you think intentionally about how to create value for the investors, customers, employees, communities you serve, you can be more centered in what you are trying to achieve.”
That mission has been “to provide affordable, reliable, clean and safe electricity to every home and business in the U.S.” particularly in rural areas. But making energy ubiquitous and efficient often involved tradeoffs.
“In the past, there was no technology that allowed us to do all those things,” Mr. Rogers explained.
“Inefficient buildings are the primary driver of carbon emissions, but the inner city is a fragmented market that’s hard to solve,” said Mr. Baird, who has nevertheless managed to turn hundreds of buildings green throughout New York City
And that’s where innovators like Mr. Baird come in. The New York City-based entrepreneur is taking the baton and leveraging the latest from Silicon Valley to deliver green energy to an urban market that, until now, has been overlooked. Through the Internet of Things, cloud computing and mobile data analysis, he’s been able to install smart pumps and solar panels in affordable housing complexes. He’s using similar technology in community-centered buildings such as hospitals, bodegas, churches and restaurants.
Beyond the environmental objectives, Blocpower is also pursuing a portfolio of social and economic benefits. Its work is causing a significant ripple effect throughout these underserved populations via its policy of hiring ex-offenders and former members of the foster care system. Additionally, it’s improving the health and lives of children in the Bronx who are making fewer asthma-related emergency room visits as 100 buildings in the area go green.
Mr. Baird was first inspired to build this business while serving as a political and community organizer in the projects of Brownsville, Brooklyn, where he witnessed the same inefficiencies he lived with while growing up in a one-bedroom apartment that relied on the oven for heat. He took these observations with him when, while still studying at Columbia Business School, he founded Blocpower. Using his organizer skills to canvas barber shops, church groups and restaurants, he interviewed potential customers, building owners and mechanical engineers, simultaneously learning about their needs and educating them about the opportunities for cleaner energy. This approach earned him their trust and gained him access to buildings that have been all but forgotten by larger energy companies.
“Only at this kind of granular level can you get into the weeds as Donnel has done,” noted Richard Witten ’75, Founder and Senior Managing Director, Columbia Entrepreneurship and conference panel moderator. “The notion of solving problems at a grass roots level is extraordinarily important around the world.”
Of course, there are many paths to change. By going building to building, neighborhood to neighborhood, Mr. Baird’s ground up, grassroots approach is the mirror image of Mr. Roger’s top-down effort to lead by example on a broad scale. Yet, the two business leaders are bridging the gap as they transform the way we use and save energy. Even if the federal level actively withdraws from the environmental policies of past administrations, Baird and Rogers are taking action by building business models that make economic sense and are self-sustaining. This way, their projects can survive despite a more adverse political climate, and they can be replicated in communities around the world.