How to Fight Climate Change: Invest in Inner Cities

Inner city neighborhoods like Brush Park in Detroit have suffered from under investment and neglect. BlocParty aims to change that, fighting climate change at the same time. Stephen Harlan [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

As the world gets hip to the economic threat of a carbon bubble, many organizations and individuals are divesting their money from fossil fuels. As they do that, many are also looking to actively invest in solutions. From investment funds focused on solar power to banks that exclusively lend to environmentally progressive projects, the options for putting your money to work in the fight climate change are growing rapidly.

Now there's a new kid on the block. Literally. Not only does it let you fight climate change, it also empowers action on another big injustice of our time: Inner city poverty and under investment.

BlocPower aims to be an online investing platform where individuals can earn a good return while financing energy-efficiency retrofits and solar power projects in distressed, inner city neighborhoods. Here's the basic idea:

  • Many churches, synagogues, nonprofits and community centers are housed in historic, rundown and generally inefficient buildings.
  • Most have limited funds available, and those funds go directly to programming and paying overhead, including often monumental heating and cooling bills.
  • Because these buildings are so inefficient, there's plenty of room for cost-effective improvements that will save money over time.
  • Investors can fund these savings, creating lower bills for the borrower from day one, and still earn a decent return on their investment.
  • All this can be achieved while using contractors who hire from the local workforce.

What's not to like? Already, BlocPower's loans are creating real savings for community organizations in need. One church Brooklyn church is saving $3,000 a month on its bills while a community center in Staten Island is said to be saving around 70 percent on its heating and cooling costs.

BlocPower estimates that there's a $43 billion market in this type of retrofit — yet banks have traditionally been uninterested in getting involved. The projects are too disparate, too small, and considered too risky by many mainstream lenders. What BlocPower has done is to use its network of community organizations to form "blocs," or mini-portfolios of potential projects that meet BlocPower's financial and engineering criteria. The idea is that by consolidating projects into blocs, it spreads out the risk of default while creating economies of scale that can reduce the costs of each project. The other key innovation is that BlocPower has partnered with utilities to collect loan repayments directly from the savings on an energy bill, again reducing the cost of administering the loan and reducing the likelihood of default.

Here's Donnel Baird, founder of BlocPower, explaining a little more about the project — and how his background growing up in inner-city Brooklyn inspired him to find ways to facilitate change.

So far, BlocPower has been putting together its deals the old fashioned way — through networking, identifying and vetting borrowers, and then matching those projects to investors they have a relationship with. According to a recent article in Fast Company, however, the plan now is to scale up via an online lending platform:

For the last two years, Baird and his team have run that marketplace manually, finding their own projects and linking up investment capital. Now, it's launching online with a sort of Kickstarter for inner city retrofits, something like what Mosaic does for solar. Investors will either be able to purchase debt in the projects (which will carry a 3% to 5% return) or equity (which could offer higher returns, though will be more risky). To do that, you'll have to live in the same state the project is located in.

No word yet on when the online platform will launch (we reached out to BlocPower for comment but have not yet heard back), but there is an

for anyone interested in finding out more/potentially investing in this exciting sounding project.