Climate Stories Episode #3: Keith Kinch, BlocPower

Retrofitting buildings in inner cities is just one element of BlocPower’s groundbreaking sustainability strategy. In this episode of Climate Stories, BlocPower’s General Manager Keith Kinch talks about the company’s deliberate, localized workforce development efforts.

“Anything worth doing is hard. It’s a journey that I enjoy.” – BlocPower General Manager Keith Kinch

General Manager Keith Kinch first met CEO Donnel Baird almost two decades ago. Together, they launched their Brooklyn-based building decarbonizing company, BlocPower, in 2012. Today, they are world leaders.

In mid-March, their company was named No. 4 on Fast Company’s list of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies of 2022. It took about a week for the news to sink in, Keith said. He laughed: “This work is so hard. The Fast Company news didn’t hit me right away. I saw that Elon Musk’s Space X is Number 9 and Microsoft is Number 8. If we’re Number 4, we must be amazing!”

Amazing, indeed. Now the darling of big banks and major investors - with almost $100 million in support from Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, Salesforce and Jeff Bezos - BlocPower has ridden a wave of positive publicity and substantive change over the last two quarters.

Last November, the company was selected to “green” all 6,000 buildings in Ithaca, New York over the next 10 years. It was the first large-scale, city-wide electrification project in the United States, and Keith predicts there will be announcements about additional cities soon.

“It’s taken a lot of political courage for Ithaca to say: ‘We want to be the first city in the U.S. and the world to decarbonize all our buildings.’” Keith added: “We don’t know yet how many jobs we will be creating locally but the experience in Ithaca will set the bar for the next 15 to 25 cities that follow its lead.”

For Kinch and Baird, BlocPower’s mission is no less than improving the health and safety as well as the economies of low income neighborhoods like those in which they grew up.

Technologies exist to retrofit the 125 million buildings across the U.S. - the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. But a big challenge has been finding financial models to pay the upfront costs of retrofitting and/or decarbonizing the electricity grid.

BlocPower has begun addressing the challenge, has retrofitted more than 1000 buildings in New York City, and is branching out across the U.S. In HBS Professor Michael Toffel’s podcast, Climate Rising, CEO Baird discussed the technical challenges of heat pump installation and financing.

But creating jobs - permanent, localized, good paying green jobs, especially for those in vulnerable populations – is a major part of BlocPower’s mission and GM Keith Kinch’s focus. The reason: BlocPower cannot fulfill its retrofitting goals without this new green workforce.

Keith explained: “Traditionally, training programs have not had connections to actual jobs. And these programs almost never hired low income individuals or veterans or women or LGBT people. We asked ourselves, ‘How do you bridge that gap?’”

In September of 2021, then-New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio announced that BlocPower had won a $37 million contract to create a Climate Tech Workforce Program to bring 1500 jobs to communities fighting gun violence. Financed with federal money from the Cares Act, the program is now administered by new-New York City Mayor Eric Adams. Keith is hopeful that the program will grow to 2000 to 3000 trainees each year through 2024.

In its ninth month, the program has trained some 1500 individuals, recruited through a network of local Community Partners organizations. Trainees are paid $20 per hour to learn - on actual job sites - solar installation, weatherization and Wi-Fi installation.

Keith explained: “They become BlocPower employees and are placed on our projects. Or, they work with an employer pool that we’ve helped to create that hires locally. We’re creating a training network that’s more efficient and provides better opportunities for actual jobs.”

At a March 16th American Clean Energy Leadership Symposium, CEO Donnel Baird explained to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm: “A good job is a great way to lift people up.”

And that’s been the experience of some who have participated in the training program. As Jevon Rock told BlocPower: “Before I started working at BlocPower, I was freelancing and doing whatever I could do to make a dollar. When I heard about BlocPower, I tried them out. You get hands-on training. They give you a chance, they believe in you.”

Jevon Rock, a Civilian Climate Corps worker. (Photo Credit: BlocPower)

Keith said that so far, BlocPower has hired about 300 people who have completed their training. Others remain in their training sessions. And so far, the company has partnered with at least eight other companies to expand the green workforce. The hope is that this list will continue to grow:

  • ChargerHelp! – launched in January 2022, the two companies’ collaboration includes training courses on electric vehicle charging stations maintenance and repair with specific curriculum focused to get a workforce up and running within weeks.
  • Urban Energy - this Brooklyn-based company installs solar panels with the goal of accelerating clean distributed energy adoption among NYC building owners.
  • Aclima – this company measures and analyzes air pollution and greenhouse gasses, block by block, and focuses on low income neighborhoods.
  • Augmented Construction - this architecture and construction management firm is optimizing access to job specifications with cloud technology.
  • People's Choice Communications - launched in 2020, this worker-owned internet service provider is committed to bridging the digital divide in NYC’s internet infrastructure.
  • VRF Solutions specializes in the design and installation of high performance HVAC systems.
  • SuperCool HVAC - certified by the EPA and the NY State Energy Research and Development Authority, this company installs, maintains and repairs HVAC systems.
  • CB-Emmanuel – a real estate firm in Queens, NY, the company manages some 3,000 units and develops affordable housing.

A next project, Keith said, is looking for partners to provide certificates for specific skills sets for the workforce trainees. “We are also looking for ways to scale in other cities as well as employers who want to work with us.”

In her testimonial for BlocPower, Nyasia West added that the training has impacted her child as well as herself: “BlocPower gives you work readiness skills, hands-on training installing Wi-Fi and cameras, and building electric charging stations. The people here want to give you the opportunities. It's a great program and has taught me so many things that I am able to take with me to other places. I am a single mom, so things get a little hard and rough sometimes. With the extra money from the Wi-Fi training, I have been able to pay for dance and tutoring sessions for afterschool. It's really good to see the things that I do are able to make a good, little human being."

Keith said that the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Locals 3 and 79 have been helpful. During the pandemic, a lot of New York electricians and construction workers retired. BlocPower’s green workforce development efforts are helping to find new talent and fill the unions’ gaps in the workforce. “We are building out a clean energy workforce that utilities as well as mom-and-pop firms can hire.” He can’t estimate yet how many jobs will be created once the big Ithaca project launches, but workforce development is a major topic as plans there are being finalized.

Civilian Climate Corps workers installing HVAC in Bed-Stuy. (Photo Credit: BlocPower)

Green workforce development is also popular among New York State’s political leaders, some of whom are calling for additional funding. A new report from Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli described the growth of green jobs, finding that “new and emerging jobs, which include those in the solar industry, recycling, water and energy, were 15.7% of all green jobs in the state in 2019, up from 9.7% in 2015.” And “between 2015 and 2019 green jobs grew by 13.2%, more than twice the rate of total job growth in New York (6%).”

In September, BlocPower CEO Donnel Baird was interviewed by Climate Stories author Jacqueline Adams for The Christian Science Monitor and said: “We have a shortage of skilled construction workers in America. There can be a three-month wait for a plumber! We must train our young people - even those who might have been in prison - to be plumbers and welders and electricians. A welder can earn $100,000 a year. We need skilled workers in America.”

Asked how he is managing BlocPower’s explosive growth, Keith sighed: “One day and one breath at a time. We still have a lot to do in a lot of cities. We are staying mission and purpose driven.”

He added: “I am committed to our final goal to help decarbonize cities and communities as well as to create a clean energy workforce. We are a platform for change and we will change parts of the U.S. – building by building.”

About Climate Stories

Climate Stories is a series researched and written by Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) and Produced by Lynn Schenk, Director, Business and Environment Initiative

The HBS Business and Environment Initiative is excited to launch Climate Stories, a series of researched blog posts that tell the unique stories of the business leaders–CEOs, founders, advisors, and more–who are enabling climate solutions to thrive by seeing new business opportunities and focusing on the people who make those solutions both necessary and possible.

To accomplish the mission of Climate Stories, BEI is grateful to be working with Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978). Adams has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. Over the next few months, she will share a variety of stories that we hope will teach, inspire, and motivate our readers to create their own positive stories - ones which prioritize the human side of climate change.

About the Author

Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. She and Bonita C. Stewart (MBA 1983) are co-authors of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive” as well as a series of groundbreaking proprietary surveys, Women of Color in Business: Cross-Generational Survey©.