Green Infrastructure | April 7, 2022

Inside BlocPower’s mission to upskill workers and green New York City buildings (photo story)

Roodgally Senatus

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ImpactAlpha Editor

Roodgally Senatus

ImpactAlpha, April 7 — On a recent early spring day, a half-dozen workers were installing heat pumps in a two-unit property on Ellis Avenue, a Bronx street lined with low-slung brick residential buildings. 

The heat pumps, a key tool in the unfolding energy transition, will provide sustainable heating and cooling for residents. They will also lower energy bills, create career opportunities and bring a measure of climate equity to residents across the Bronx and other low-to-moderate income communities that too often bear the brunt of a changing climate.

An already installed heat pump.

“In low-income communities, there’s a waste of energy and there’s a waste of human potential,” says Donnel Baird, cofounder of BlocPower, the Brooklyn-based company overseeing the installation. 

Baird founded the climate tech startup with Morris Cox in 2014 to bring clean energy to low-income Americans. Working with utilities, government agencies and property owners, BlocPower has retrofitted more than 1,000 buildings in New York City alone.

Buildings make up about a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and a whopping 67% of total emissions in New York City, where most buildings are heated with fossil fuels and meals are cooked with gas stoves. 

An old radiator in one of the units at the Ellis Avenue building.

The Ellis Ave. retrofit is part of an initiative to create a “civilian climate corps” drawn from communities hardest hit by gun violence. Launched last year in partnership with New York City, which kicked in $37 million, the program aims to train up to 3,000 workers annually.   

“New York State is expected to gain at least 211,000 new jobs related to clean energy by 2030, and the majority will be in building energy efficiency and electrification,” BlocPower’s Keith Kinch told ImpactAlpha. “We believe the Civilian Climate Corps can fulfill this growing need for smarter, greener and healthier buildings.”

Trainees in the BlocPower-NYC program are paid $20 per hour to learn how to install heat pumps as well as solar panels, wifi systems and electric charging stations. Since it launched, the program has trained and created green jobs for over 1,000 New Yorkers, who have been recruited through local community partners, and in the case of formerly-incarcerated Robert Rumph, word of mouth. 

A 56-year old newlywed, Rumph found out about BlocPower’s training program from Andre Patterson, an old friend who was also installing heat pumps on Ellis Ave. that day. Patterson heard about the program while working part-time at Lincoln Hospital with underserved youths and victims from gunshot wounds. “I told my director at the time, I’m going to take this,” he said. “From there I told Rob and spread the word to other friends.”

From left to right: Robert Rumph and Andre Patterson.

For Rumph, who spent 26 years in prison, the opportunity was the “blessing” he had been looking for. “I did too much time in jail to come out and waste more time,” said Rumph. “I made poor choices when I was younger and paid for them, but now I’m not allowing room for any more mistakes. I just want to work, get paid and enjoy the rest of my life.”

He and Patterson said the training provides a career path and mobility, since they can take anywhere the skills they learned from BlocPower’s training. “You can pay the bills with this, go on vacation and then have some money in your savings,” said Patterson. 

BlocPower’s program, which involves no upfront costs for property owners, has also benefited Waheed Jalil, who, along with his two brothers, owns the building where Rumph and Patterson are working. 

Owning real estate is a little slice of the American dream for the brothers and their Bengali immigrant parents. “They sacrificed a lot to come here, and we all lived in a one bedroom apartment growing up,” says Jalil. “My dad was a line cook at a Marriott hotel and my mom worked part time to keep money on the table while being a stay at home mom to keep us fed.”

Waheed Jalil in one of the units where heat pumps are being installed.

The Jalil family plans to do a full renovation on the two-unit building, with the goal of leasing a modern and sustainable home to the tenants who will occupy them. 

Electric-powered heat pumps absorb heat and release cool air in a building in the summer and absorb cool air and release heat in the winter. They are more energy efficient and cost effective than air conditioners and boilers, and can also clean and purify the air.

“The tenants are going to have heating and cooling and no longer do they need to have their own air conditioning in individual bedrooms that rack up the electric bill,” said Jalil. “We were also able to remove the old radiators and boilers, which you know, are expensive and disruptive to the environment.”

Such stories are playing out across the nation in neighborhoods on the front lines of climate change. 

BlocPower, recently named to one of the TIME100 most influential companies, has projects underway in more than 25 cities, including Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Oakland. The company has a city-wide partnership with Ithaca in upstate New York to electrify and decarbonize its entire building stock by 2030. It also plans to expand the Civilian Climate Corps model nationwide.

A BlocPower Civilian Climate Corp member inspecting wiring for the heat pumps.

That kind of impact is resonating with investors. BlocPower has raised nearly $100 million in debt and equity to date from investors including Kapor Capital, Jeff Bezos’ Bezos Earth Fund, Microsoft Climate Innovation Fund, Goldman Sachs and Salesforce. A $5.5 million grant from the Bezos Earth Fund will support the creation of an open source data set and recommendations for 100 million buildings across America. 

“There’s no path to addressing the climate crisis directly and urgently without greening buildings, at scale,” says BlocPower’s Kinch. “BlocPower is working building-by-building, block-by-block, and city-by-city to solve this problem,” he adds.

Photo Story by ImpactAlpha’s Roodgally Senatus.