In the Shadow of Detroit, a Michigan City Is Taking the Solar Transition Into Its Own Hands

Amid poverty and frequent power blackouts, a cutting-edge renewable energy program is underway in Highland Park.

Valerie Vande Panne

Linda Huff’s home in Detroit boasts an outdoor solar light she bought at bulk rates through the nonprofit Soulardarity. (Erik Howard)

DETROIT — Lin­da Huff’s street is often dark because of fre­quent neigh­bor­hood black­outs, but her house always shines bright. New out­door solar-pow­ered light­ing makes her home look and feel safer than the oth­ers on her block. 

'It’s fueled by the God-given sun. The lights at our house are on. Because of that, I’m on the bandwagon.'

Huff par­tic­i­pates in a bulk solar-buy­ing club with the High­land Park-based non­prof­it Soular­dar­i­ty, one of the most for­ward-think­ing solar pro­grams in the coun­try. Soular­dar­i­ty launched in 2012 after pow­er com­pa­ny DTE Ener­gy shut off 1,400 street­lights in a deal to save the munic­i­pal­i­ty $4 mil­lion. The group put for­ward a plan for city­wide solar streetlights.

High­land Park is a small city inside Detroit, one of two com­mu­ni­ties that incor­po­rat­ed before a rapid­ly expand­ing Motor City could annex them. This is where Hen­ry Ford built the Mod­el T. Once boom­ing, High­land Park now has a pover­ty rate of 46 per­cent. Blight, arson and deep pot­holes are ubiq­ui­tous. The elec­tric grid is old and poor­ly main­tained, result­ing in fre­quent blackouts.

Worse, DTE plans to raise res­i­den­tial rates by 9 to 12 per­cent as ear­ly as June 2019. If we don’t change this dynam­ic, util­i­ty costs will con­tribute to dis­place­ment,” says Jack­son Koep­pel, 26, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Soulardarity.

To cre­ate ener­gy resilience, Soular­dar­i­ty launched a pro­gram in 2016 that lets res­i­dents pur­chase solar infra­struc­ture for their homes or busi­ness­es at bulk rates. The pro­gram has 75 par­tic­i­pants in High­land Park and neigh­bor­ing Detroit. Each pur­chas­es and installs enough solar pan­els to pow­er exte­ri­or light­ing, a lamp, lap­top or cell phone charg­er. No one has been able to take their homes entire­ly off-grid — yet.

Huff has bought solar for both the Shek­inah Taber­na­cle Gospel Church, where her hus­band min­is­ters, as well as their home. She nev­er before saw her­self as an envi­ron­men­tal­ist: I’m not gonna sit here and tell you I was all solar this and clean water that,” she tells In These Times. But now she’s a con­vert. The out­door solar lights have low­ered her elec­tric bills and don’t come with the haz­ards of reg­u­lar elec­tric pow­er, such as the fre­quent black­outs in her neigh­bor­hood or the downed, live pow­er line in her backyard.

Soular­dar­i­ty is also sup­port­ing Park­er Vil­lage, an area of High­land Park being devel­oped into one of Michigan’s first smart neigh­bor­hoods”—one built around sus­tain­able ener­gy and green design. It start­ed because life­long High­land Park res­i­dent Juan Shan­non want­ed to build an aquapon­ic fish farm and raised gar­den. He need­ed pow­er to pump cap­tured rain­wa­ter, and want­ed to do it in a way that was eco-friend­ly and save mon­ey. Solar was the answer.

Soular­dar­i­ty brought togeth­er mul­ti­ple groups to help Shan­non build a solar sta­tion, includ­ing the Ann Arbor-based Appro­pri­ate Tech­nol­o­gy Col­lab­o­ra­tive, which spe­cial­izes in teach­ing how to install solar around the world. The Black Cau­cus Foun­da­tion of Detroit brought in high school seniors to learn how to install a solar panel.

The fin­ished solar sta­tion is only about the size of a small gar­den shed, but it can pow­er Shannon’s water pumps with ener­gy left over to charge cell phones and pow­er tools need­ed for con­struc­tion on the project’s next phase. A shut­tered ele­men­tary school will be trans­formed into the Park­er Vil­lage Com­mu­ni­ty Resource Cen­ter, from which Shan­non plans to work with the com­mu­ni­ty to build out a whole new infra­struc­ture for the sur­round­ing block: LED light­ing, solar pow­er and blue infra­struc­ture to man­age waste­water and storm water runoff.

While Shan­non works on that, Huff is look­ing for­ward to pur­chas­ing more solar infra­struc­ture through the bulk pro­gram and fur­ther edu­cat­ing her com­mu­ni­ty about the ben­e­fits of solar. It’s fueled by the God-giv­en sun,” she says. The lights at our house are on. Because of that, I’m on the bandwagon.”

Valerie Vande Panne is an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.
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