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Highland Park residents lighting up their streets with solar power

Feb 21, 2017

Energy costs can be a huge burden on low-income communities.

That’s especially true in Highland Park. The tiny enclave within Detroit was literally left in the dark after it ran up a big street lighting bill.

But there are some small bright spots popping up—thanks to solar power, and the efforts of one community group.

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Left in the dark

Highland Park is a small community, and a poor one. When the city found itself facing a four million dollar unpaid street lighting tab in 2011, it couldn’t pay.

So the city struck a deal with DTE Energy. A lot of that debt was wiped out, and DTE took the lights back.

Literally: the company came through town with flatbed trucks and pulled most of the streetlights out of the residential areas.

Cindy Mondy says that was a “demoralizing” time for Highland Park residents like her.

“People coming home from work, and there’s no light whatsoever. And then walking into this abyss of darkness. Just incredibly unfair,” she says.

Enter a group called Soulardarity. It started out with a simple goal: crowdfund enough money for one solar-powered streetlight in Highland Park, as a kind of demonstration project.

Jackson Koeppel is Soulardarity’s founder and executive director.

“We wanted to demonstrate this technology because it was more affordable, it was more resilient, it would work during a blackout,” he says.

Slow, but steady progress

That light went up in 2012. Soulardarity turned into a larger, non-profit community organization. A couple of years later, a couple more solar lights went up.

One was in front of Nandi Frye’s house; the only one on her block.

“That light, it really shines bright on my street. I love that solar light,” she says.

The solar streetlight at Nandi Frye's house.
Credit Sarah Cwiek

The group kept growing. And around that time, Koeppel says members realized it had a larger mission: fostering what he calls “energy democracy.”

At the same time, they worked up a larger, city-wide proposal: an ambitious plan to re-light Highland Park streets with solar power.

But they needed city buy-in to get that effort going, and they didn’t get it. In the meantime, Koeppel says the interest in solar lighting kept growing.

“A lot of members said listen, we’re down, we want to see this large proposal go, but my street is dark, my alleyway is dark. I want to be able to actually do something right now,” he says.

How to pay for it all

So they decided to move ahead on their own on a smaller scale. But there can be big upfront costs with solar. And Koeppel says Michigan isn’t an easy place to do community solar projects—especially in low-income communities.

“Everybody knows about it, everybody wants it, but nobody knows where to go to get it. And the costs of trying to get it individually are sometimes very high,” he says.

But if there’s enough interest you can order in bulk. That’s what Soulardarity started doing in 2015.

"We all played under the streetlights. The streetlight has a lot of stories, you know? You build stories around the streetlight."

They partnered with a local manufacturer to put up 47 more solar lights on homes and businesses in and around Highland Park.

Participants paid anywhere from $80-$150 to purchase and install the lights.

Koeppel says the group has spent about $50,000 to buy and install all 53 lights, including $42,000 from grants and crowdfunding for the six solar streetlights.

They worked with the city to make sure everything is done legally and safely. So far, all the lights have been installed on private property.

Cindy Mondy got one of the new lights at her house. She likes that once it’s installed, the maintenance costs are minimal.

“And then the benefit to the earth by using this sort of a light, as opposed to what we’ve been using," she says. "It’s like a win-win-win-win situation.”

There are other benefits too. Cindy Mondy and Nandi Frye say the lights bring back a sense of security and community—things you tend to take for granted until you don’t have them anymore.

"As a child you think that’s forever, to have a streetlight," says Frye. "We all played under the streetlights. The streetlight has a lot of stories, you know? You build stories around the streetlight.”

Soulardarity is now working on another bulk purchase—at least 100 lights this time.

The group's leaders say they expect to keep growing. Even if things haven’t gotten as big as fast as they might have hoped, they are making steady progress.

*Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated how the bulk solar lighting purchase was funded. It has been corrected above.