BlocPower’s Donnel Baird on green building, Biden’s infrastructure deal, and VC’s racial reckoning
“Turning buildings into Teslas.”
Since 2014, the company has been retrofitting buildings in New York’s disadvantaged communities with energy efficient heating and cooling systems, ultimately upping building values and lowering building operating costs. So far, Baird has completed over 1,000 projects in the New York City area, with even more building retrofits underway in 24 additional U.S. cities.
For Brooklyn-raised Baird and his team at BlocPower, honing in on retrofitting opportunities in underserved communities translates to high-paying green jobs, healthier air, and increased investment in those neighborhoods — especially as U.S. businesses bring workers back to the office.
CNBC recently spoke with Baird, who says the level of interest from commercial buildings is “skyrocketing” when it comes to sustainability upgrades and energy efficiency. “We know that, as people return to work, air quality and the health impact of buildings is going to be a requirement,” he said. “We’ve seen a dramatic uptick in the amount of construction projects that we’re completing … because folks are seeing June as the month to come back to work.”
The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
CNBC: Of the upcoming projects that you have planned throughout the country, which cities do you see presenting the biggest challenges?
Baird: Philadelphia is one of my favorite markets, but it’s also a huge challenge. The city actually has one of the highest amounts of low-income homeownership of any major American city. There used to be lots of factory jobs inside the city limits and Philly, so all the workers in those factories bought these row houses and townhouses. The jobs left, but the workers and their kids and grandkids are still there. Many of them are unemployed, many of them are considered low income by federal definition. They own those homes because their parents and grandparents bought the townhouses, but they can no longer afford property taxes, maintenance repairs, and certainly not energy efficiency. So it’s a really interesting challenge for us … how we’re going to capitalize and analyze all these buildings.
They have massive health needs, they have roofs that need to be replaced, they have plumbing that needs to be replaced, the buildings are filled with carbon monoxide and other kinds of lead and asbestos. So, we’re trying to figure that one out, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.
There’s another American city that wants to go 100% electric, 100% renewable energy within the next five years. And so we’re incredibly excited about that project. I can’t say which it is yet, because they’re in an RFP process. But hopefully, by the end of the month, or next month, we’ll be able to say. Obviously, that’s going to be a massive challenge, because we’re going to green up all the buildings and green all the cars and trucks. And so that’s going to be a major, major, major challenge. But if we can pull it off, it’s going to be huge.
CNBC: Can you give us a hint?
Baird: I will say it’s a city in New York that’s benefiting from the leadership of the state of New York and Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature, they have made significant commitments to clean energy. And so some of the cities are trying to match those commitments. So it’s in New York State.
CNBC: If it’s financially advantageous for buildings to switch out of fossil fuels and into green power, and if there are tax incentives for them to do so, what’s your biggest barrier to growth right now?
Baird: It’s financially advantageous under certain conditions. You have to have the right amount of tax credits, you have to have the right amount of incentives and or subsidies from the local utility company or from the local government. And in those conditions, it’s financially advantageous.
The real variable is not just the subsidies and tax credits, because some of them are federal and you can get them anywhere. The real variable is what’s the local cost of labor. And how efficient is your labor supply in terms of modern construction services and highly skilled workers. There’s a labor shortage of skilled construction workers across the country, which is a big problem and a major constraint right now.
And then the other constraint is the manufacturers. Their costs are coming down, but it’s a new piece of hardware that allows us to take buildings entirely off of fossil fuels. We’re still pretty early on in that manufacturing curve, but the cost is coming down. Right now, it’s cost that we’re able to amortize out over time, making it viable for building owners to access these technologies in the same way that the mortgage industry does for mortgages: Nobody can afford a house upfront. A 30-year mortgage stretches that payment out over time. So while we can make it affordable and accessible, the question is: Do building owners understand the value of taking out a second 15-year mortgage to electrify a building they already built? Part of our job is dealing with the labor supply, and another part is the sales, marketing and customer education.
CNBC: Your services also make buildings healthier. Have you seen any pandemic tailwinds and what are your expectations, post-pandemic?
Baird: Absolutely. We’re spending a lot of time linking green energy equipment upgrades to Covid-19, thinking, ‘How can a piece of green equipment actually filter the air in your building to make it safer for you and your kids? To make it safe for weddings or funerals in a synagogue, church or a mosque?’
Talking with owners about the way their buildings circulate outdoor air pollution indoors … this is a huge focus for our business post-pandemic. In Oakland, California, we’ve got a big demonstration project, where we’re taking lead and asbestos out of the buildings, which keeps people healthier. But we’re also putting in new electric heating systems that are making the air quality inside buildings healthier. Companies that do this, like Kaiser Permanente, who we’re working with, are going to have fewer families in and out of the emergency room with chronic asthma attacks and other conditions, because the buildings are healthier. It’s a huge focus for us.
CNBC: In that same regard, how are you thinking about the environmental impact of people returning to work in office buildings?
Baird: Millennials and Gen Z are very focused on the air quality and health impact of buildings, particularly office buildings, now that many millennials are totally comfortable working from home via Zoom and looking for greater benefits as an in-person employee. At a minimum, it has to be safe. We’re seeing a lot of commercial office folks in New York City focusing on those types of upgrades. Now, they haven’t had rent coming in for the last 12 months, so many of them are hesitant to pull the trigger and make that investment. But the level of interest that we’re seeing is skyrocketing; And we know as people return to work that those upgrades are going to be the new requirement.
There’s a set of economic indicators involved that bring value to a landlord that’s leasing the space. If you increase the air quality, you can simultaneously boost the productivity per square foot of your investment in commercial office space. There’s a lot of data on this that’s coming out, and we expect that customers who have large commercial office space are going to demand, at a minimum, that air quality be as clean and healthy as possible.
CNBC: You mentioned the hesitancy of companies looking to make these types of investments. Are you seeing that hesitancy diminish as we move further into a post-pandemic world?
Baird: People are starting to pull the trigger. Folks we’ve been talking to for the last 12 to 18 months, who were about to pull the trigger in February of last year, are starting to come back around. Everyone’s feeling more optimistic, everyone’s ready to return to work and return to normal economic activity. They’re making those investments, and we’ve seen a dramatic uptick in the amount of construction projects that we’re completing, year over year, but particularly month over month. We’re doing better than projected, because folks are seeing June as the month to come back to work.
CNBC: Last week, Senate Republicans introduced a $928 billion counteroffer on infrastructure to President Biden’s now $1.7 trillion plan. GOP leaders say that $4 billion of that goes to major infrastructure projects like electric vehicles, but there’s still very few specifics on whether green energy or clean tech will be included in those projects at all. If you were working in the Biden-Harris administration, would you encourage the president to accept this offer?
Baird: Let me start by saying that I’m a big believer in President Biden. As both a healer, and as an individual, he has gone through truly difficult times losing his family, re-building a life, and trying to heal his children after multiple losses. I think he’s the right president for what this country needs in terms of our hyper-partisanship. And so given that, I 100% understand President Biden’s desire to complete a bipartisan infrastructure bill. I think it’s important to the overall health of the country to be able to do something together.
Still, the skinny or narrow infrastructure bill that has been proposed does strip away a lot of smart grid and solar electrification projects, as well as some social stuff like senior care, elder care, child care. The Democrats want that stuff. Meanwhile, it’s clean energy, and some of this social service infrastructure funding that the Republicans want to pull out. There is bipartisan agreement on extending broadband across the country, and making sure that America’s competitive with China and other places so that any American kid can access the internet, and the genius of the American population can be unleashed because we all have internet as a baseline and digital access. So that’s good. That’s the good part of the skinny infrastructure bill.
I believe that there’s a cohort of Republican senators that want to do something on climate. It can’t be called climate. I talked to my Republican friends … I only have like one Republican friend, I talk to this one dude, all the time, about the fact that there is a small cohort of Republicans that could do something on solar, they could do something on batteries, they could do something on nuclear, they could do something on smart grid. The fact that our nation’s electricity grid and gas grid has been under attack by hackers … we saw all that stuff needs to be upgraded. And that’s cybersecurity infrastructure. And so I think there’s something to be done there. And I’d love to at least see the cybersecurity and smart grid aspect be included in a skinny infrastructure bill.
I’d take a narrow deal with cybersecurity for the nation’s electricity and gas grids as a part of that. As a business person, I can understand that if we digitize the nation’s electric and gas grid infrastructure, that new digital platform is going to provide enough data and computerization to allow us to do a lot of the solar and other kinds of green energy stuff that we need. Having a digital foundation for the country’s energy system as a whole would be a huge improvement. I would take a narrow infrastructure deal and live to fight another day on climate and maybe just pass a separate small climate bill through reconciliation. And then you’ve got to let the private sector do its thing.
CNBC: Over the last year or so, venture capitalists and investors alike have made a lot of promises to reckon with diversity at their firms and among their portfolio companies. As a Black founder, do you feel as if any substantial progress has been made when it comes to greater investment in, and representation of, founders of color?
Baird: No, not in venture capital. I don’t. However, I think that in corporate America — certainly the leaders of corporate America — particularly in the tech industry, we are seeing real substantive conversations about diversity. And more importantly, not just conversations, but strategic investments.
With regard to Silicon Valley VCs or Silicon Alley VCs in New York, or even across other parts of the country, no. You have the same superstar, legendary investors. Kapor Capital [a BlocPower investor] was investing in Black and Latinx founders before George Floyd. They were investing in women founders before George Floyd. Andreessen Horowitz, as much as the press loves to give them a hard time about what they do or don’t do, they invested in us in 2014, long before before George Floyd. And they invested again in 2019, long before George Floyd.
I talked to these folks every week, and it’s a significant source of mentorship and guidance for my personal growth. And, by the way, they never share the fact that they talk to me every week, and give me specific feedback on how to grow my company. Kapor Capital doesn’t talk about it. Andreessen Horowitz doesn’t talk about it, but they invest significantly, kind of off the books and outside of the public eye. They were doing it before and they’re going to continue to do it after.
So, the folks who have already figured out a lot of the racial stuff doubled down — they tripled down — in Silicon Valley. Other folks, I think, are still trying. They’re interested, they want to do better, they want to do more, but they don’t quite have a plan to square traditional pattern matching. As a VC, how do you square that with the need to invest in a new cohort of founders that don’t resemble the patterns that you’re comfortable with, and don’t resemble the patterns that you think are going to make money? Deep down in your heart, if you don’t think someone’s going to go off and make you a bunch of money, it’s really hard to make that investment.
I am hopeful. I think like five years from now, VC will be in a better place. But now, there’s been no substantive difference, other than the hype and public conversation around trying to do better, which is still progress.
CNBC: Is BlocPower at the point where it’s thinking about life as a publicly traded company?
Baird: I don’t think we’re quite big enough right now, but maybe 10 months from now. We’re looking at it. We want to grow fast and grow big and we’d look at something like a SPAC the same way we’d look at an IPO: ‘Are we ready to do it?’
We’re firm believers in providing retail investors access to our platform. I know a lot of times VCs think that’s a negative signal, but fundamentally, as a former community organizer, I believe in having regular Americans participate in our company. And if things go well, those people are going to own the upside, because we want to be BlocPower by the people, for the people. We believe in that kind of stuff.
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This guy built a six-seater electric bike for $150, and it absolutely rips
I’ve always enjoyed multi-seater electric bikes, which bring passenger-carrying utility to small-format, easy-to-produce vehicles. But I never thought I’d see the concept taken this far. At least not until I stumbled upon a six-seater electric bike that has me all kinds of jealous.
It’s no surprise where this custom e-bike originated. If you want to see the most creative and ingenious transportation solutions in the world, you have to head over to Asia.
The Chinese often get a lot of credit for some of the more wacky vehicles popping up on Alibaba, but India usually takes the cake with some of the coolest auto and motorcycle innovation on the planet. And that’s exactly where this impressive six-seater bike comes from, where it was hand-built by Ashhad Abdullah from Lohra in eastern India.
Abdullah seems to have caught my recent Awesomely Weird Alibaba Electric Vehicle of the Week entry for a three-seater electric bike and said “Hold my lassi.”
Instead of a three-seater, Abdullah doubled the capacity to six seats. His stretch-limousine electric bike looks like it wears a scooter fork on front complete with drum brake, off-road lighting kit, and even a motorcycle horn. The rear seems to hold a hub motor wheel in a swingarm supported by dual coilover shocks. There’s a battery box mounted just in front of the swingarm, though how much capacity he’s rocking seems to be a mystery.
Bridging the two ends of the bike is a bespoke ladder frame with six seats, six handlebars, and six pairs of foot pegs.
There’s no word on the turning radius, but we’d wager it’s somewhere around the width of the state of Bihar.
Abdullah created the custom-designed bike after climbing fuel prices made petrol-powered motorcycles less appealing. In total, he says the bike cost him around 12,000 INR (US $150) to build.
It gets a range of around 150 km (93 miles) and costs around 10 INR (US $0.12) to recharge.
I’m not sure if this is technically an e-bike, at least by electric bicycle standards. It certainly looks like a tandem-style bicycle setup with bicycle seats, but the lack of pedals means it would be classified more like an electric scooter or motorcycle.
But whatever you call it, the six-seater bike has received a warm reception around the world.
The novel creation went viral on Twitter after a video of it in action was reposted by Anand Mahindra, the chairman of Mahindra Group, one of the largest automakers in India (and similar in size to GM).
It’s unlikely we’d see an awesome ride like this in the West, where safety regulations and an unhealthy aversion to two wheels would likely make this six-seater dead on arrival.
I’ll admit that it’s hard for me to argue with the safety concerns, especially when seeing six helmet-less heads and a few bare feet as well.
There are some good alternatives available in the US, at least if you’re alright with just two-seater e-bikes. But with options like a $999 Lectric XP 3.0 or a $1,499 RadRunner helping put more riders on smaller electric vehicles, the chances for sharing the fun on e-bikes are growing, even in laggard countries like the US.
We may never get six bodies on one bike, but even two would be a good start!
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Tesla launches in Thailand, opens Model 3 and Y orders at competitive prices
Tesla has officially launched in Thailand and opened orders for Model 3 and Model Y at competitive prices.
It has been a little while since Tesla has expanded into a brand-new market. The company was trying hard to enter the Indian market for years, but the effort was put on hold earlier this year after negotiations with the government stalled.
A few weeks later, we learned that Tesla’s new market team turned its attention to Southeast Asia, and more specifically Thailand.
The automaker filed to register its product for sale in the country. That was the first indication that Tesla planned to enter the market.
In September, we reported that Tesla started to hire in Thailand – indicating that a launch was imminent.
Today, Tesla has officially launched its Model 3 and Model Y vehicles in Thailand with a small event in a luxury mall in central Bangkok.
The automaker has started taking orders through a new Thai configurator for those two models. Tesla is offering all variants of the Model 3 and Model Y for sale in Thailand:
The Model 3 starts at ฿1,759,000 in Thailand, which is the equivalent of about $50,000 USD and fairly competitive compared to other luxury EVs in the market.
The Model Y starts ฿1,959,000, or about $58,000 USD.
Interestingly, while Tesla is starting to take orders through the new configurator, the automaker doesn’t list expected delivery windows in the country.
While we don’t know when official deliveries from Tesla will start in Thailand, there are already a decent number of Tesla electric vehicles in the country.
They have been imported privately by the owners – and that’s a factor that Tesla takes into account when considering entering a new market. If many people are willing to go through the trouble of importing the vehicle, there’s a good chance that there’s a market for its vehicles in the country.
We even reported on the Thai police buying a fleet of Tesla Model 3 vehicles for police patrol back in 2020, pictured above.
The Thai auto market is more significant than most people would think. More than 750,000 cars were sold in the market last year, and it is expected to ramp up to 800K–900K this year. However, most of those vehicles are not in the same price range as Tesla vehicles.
Thailand is also a vehicle assembly hub with up to 2 million vehicles produced locally per year.
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U.S. pledges to ramp up supplies of natural gas to Britain as Biden and Sunak seek to cut off Russia
Rishi Sunak and Joe Biden photographed on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Indonesia on Nov. 16, 2022.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
LONDON — The U.K. and U.S. are forming a new energy partnership focused on boosting energy security and reducing prices.
In a statement Wednesday, the U.K. government said the new partnership would “drive work to reduce global dependence on Russian energy exports, stabilise energy markets and step up collaboration on energy efficiency, nuclear and renewables.”
The U.K.-U.S. Energy Security and Affordability Partnership, as it’s known, will be directed by a U.K.-U.S. Joint Action Group headed up by officials from both the White House and U.K. government.
Among other things, the group will undertake efforts to make sure the market ramps up supplies of liquefied natural gas from the U.S. to the U.K.
“As part of this, the US will strive to export at least 9-10 billion cubic metres of LNG over the next year via UK terminals, more than doubling the level exported in 2021 and capitalising on the UK’s leading import infrastructure,” Wednesday’s announcement said.
“The group will also work to reduce global reliance on Russian energy by driving efforts to increase energy efficiency and supporting the transition to clean energy, expediting the development of clean hydrogen globally and promoting civil nuclear as a secure use of energy,” it added.
Commenting on the plans, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “We have the natural resources, industry and innovative thinking we need to create a better, freer system and accelerate the clean energy transition.”
“This partnership will bring down prices for British consumers and help end Europe’s dependence on Russian energy once and for all.”
The news comes at a time of huge disruption within global energy markets following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
The Kremlin was the biggest supplier of both natural gas and petroleum oils to the EU in 2021, according to Eurostat, but gas exports from Russia to the European Union have been signifciantly reduced this year. The U.K. left the EU on Jan. 31, 2020.
Major European economies have been trying to reduce their own consumption and shore up supplies from alternative sources for the colder months ahead — and beyond.
Top CEOs from the power industry have forecast that turbulence in energy markets is likely to persist for some time. “Things are extremely turbulent, as they have been the whole year, I would say,” Francesco Starace, the CEO of Italy’s Enel, told CNBC last month.
“The turbulence we’re going to have will remain — it might change a little bit, the pattern, but we’re looking at one or two years of extreme volatility in the energy markets,” Starace added.
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