This article is part of our special series Power by the People: Clean Energy from the Grassroots.
As alongtime resident of Highland Park, Michigan, De’Angelus Garcia Jr. has seen his community undergo abig transformation. Adecade or so ago, the city was at the mercy of an energy system that left it without heat in the winter and in the dark at night. Now it’s an active participant in building afairer, more sustainable energy future. It’s also apowerful example of how on-site, community-organized energy infrastructure has an extensive ripple effect of benefits for the communities themselves, the energy companies that often neglect them, and society atlarge.
That transformation got started back in 2011, when DTE Energy, the utility serving Highland Park and the greater Detroit area, repossessed more than 1,000 streetlights because the city government had failed to pay the utility bill. It was the latest civic injury for acommunity of 11,000 that’s faced high unemployment and decaying infrastructure since the auto industry abandoned it between the 1950s and the1990s.
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“People were walking out of their homes to see DTE workers uprooting streetlights,” said Garcia, who was born and raised in the Detroit metro region that includes Highland Park. “It’s one of those things that either makes you feel hopeless or makes you rise to the occasion and defy theodds.”
Neighbors opted for the latter, starting acrowdfunding campaign to raise funds to install community-owned, solar-panel-charged streetlights that operate independently of DTE’s grid. That initial response has since grown into Soulardarity. The nonprofit, for which Garcia serves as communications director, has built its community organizing strategy around what it calls its “blueprint for energy democracy.”
“What Soulardarity really champions is equity in systems,” Garcia said. The institutional racism that has held back public- and private-sector investment in communities such as Highland Park translates into neglect or harassment by the monopoly utilities that serve them, hesaid.
Nearly half of Highland Park’s residents, 88 percent of whom are Black, live below the federal poverty line. DTE Energy has pushed through aseries of rate hikes over the past six years, and utility bills can claim from athird to afifth of atypical Highland Park family’s income.
Of the 45 percent of Highland Park residents who have reported having trouble paying their bills, one in four have had their electricity shut off for lack of payment — two-thirds of them during harsh Michigan winters. Meanwhile, DTE has come under fire for the unusual practice of sending unpaid bills to debt collectors who have threatened residents with further financial or legal hardship.
Highland Park residents have also experienced multiday blackouts from aDTE Energy grid that’s faced criticism for poor reliability, most recently after thunderstorms in July left about 600,000 customers without power, some for up to five days. Some customers face life-or-death consequences when they lose power for their medical devices or lack heating or air conditioning. Those who are less vulnerable still lose medicine or food without refrigeration, Garcia said, which means “we’ve lost the value of the service we’ve made payment for.”
Reversing these entrenched inequities requires political organizing to demand change from the powers that be, he said. But it also requires building acommunity’s capacity to make change on itsown.
“We’re amember-based organization,” Garcia said. “We work with individuals to identify the needs of the Highland Park community and hold ourselves accountable to doing what the community needs.”
A two-tiered approach to enacting energy democracy
Soulardarity’s approach to energy democracy is guided by the particular needs of the Highland Park residents, but Garcia sees its “multilayered strategy” being adapted by communities across the country that are struggling under similar circumstances.
From urban centers like Detroit, New Orleans and New York City to remote rural and tribal communities, neighbors are banding together to raise money to install solar panels and energy-efficient appliances to reduce energy costs in homes, apartment buildings and businesses. Community groups are organizing with nonprofits to finance community solar projects that can share low-cost, carbon-free power among those who can’t afford solar on their own, and they are winning assistance from government agencies to deploy batteries that can provide backup power for schools, churches and community centers when the grid goesdown.
But this ground-up work has to be accompanied by broader efforts to change the regulations and policies that have left communities like Highland Park without affordable and reliable power, Garcia said. “Being able to resolve our own issues is one of our guiding principles. One of the ways we do that is by championing policy aswell.”
Soulardarity’s solar streetlights project is agood example of this two-tiered approach, Garcia said. Crowdfunding has supported the installation of 17 solar-charged streetlights so far. Another 15 will be installed soon with support from grants secured this summer. And Soulardarity has along-term plan to replace all 1,000 through aproposed $10 million public-private partnership.
DTE’s own plan to replace the streetlights it removed is to deploy underground electrical lines and charge monthly electricity and pole rental fees to Highland Park. But Soulardarity’s research shows that solar-charged streetlights could actually be amore cost-effective solution — if the city can arrange effective financing for installation and ongoing operations.
Data like this helps build the case for financing acommunity project that Highland Park residents can’t bankroll on their own, Garcia said. Soulardarity’s 17 streetlights deployed to date represent 10years of work and half amillion dollars in support, but just 3.7 percent of the streetlights that DTE removed in 2011, he said. “It does underscore the need for larger participation, whether that’s from the utility monopoly or other organizations that are well resourced.”
Building community agency into community solar
The solar streetlights project has also given Highland Park households their first glimpse of the energy security and economic value that on-site solar power can provide, Garcia said. “Solar energy is something you can anticipate increasing in value over time,” not just by reducing ever-rising energy bills, but by increasing property values. Yet most Highland Park residents lack the capital and credit history to secure solar for themselves.
Soulardarity has worked with other groups on “solarize” campaigns to pool residents’ purchasing power for lower-cost bulk solar installations. Polar Bear Sustainable Energy Cooperative, anonprofit spun out of Soulardarity and named after the mascot of the now-closed Highland Park High School, runs crowdfunding campaigns to help homes with aging fossil gas infrastructure switch to solar power and electric heating and cooking.
“These are things we do for ourselves, but it’s ultimately meant to force change from the entities that we still have to participate with” such as DTE, Garcia said. For Soulardarity, that includes demanding that the utility invest in community solar.
Soulardarity’s work with other community groups has led to some victories on the community-solar front. In 2021, Michigan regulators approved asettlement agreement that saw DTE commit to pursuing three community solar projects in Highland Park, Detroit and River Rouge that will reduce the electricity bills of low-income residents.
The settlement fell short of the community-owned solar proposal that Soulardarity had brought to regulators, however. That proposal would have created apathway for communities to organize and finance the projects.
It’s rare for communities to take the lead on designing community solar projects from the ground up, let alone hold ownership stakes in the projects once they’re built. But this concept is gaining ground as away to bring lower-cost energy and broader economic benefits to disadvantaged communities.
“For years, excluded communities have been pushed out and left in the dark when it comes to their energy future,” said Yesenia Rivera, executive director of the Solstice Initiative, the nonprofit arm of equity-focused community-solar technology provider Solstice Power Technologies. (Watch Rivera discuss her work during Canary Media’s recent panel for our Power by the People series.)
Solstice Initiative’s goal is to facilitate asolar project development process that is “entirely community-led,” starting with forming community advisory boards that spend up to ayear assessing what’s best for acommunity’s needs, she said. In Boston, the organization is working with three neighborhoods that have “decided to develop and own their own community solar project” rather than simply subscribe to aproject owned by autility or independent developer, Rivera said.
Community-led projects like this have become far more tenable with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which will allow nonprofit and tax-exempt entities to receive direct payment of federal tax credits that are central to solar project finance in the U.S., sheadded.
When communities own their own energy assets, they also have control over other issues that matter to them, Rivera said. That can include local jobs with good wages and benefits as well as opportunities for training and locally owned businesses.
Soulardarity has built employment opportunities into its organizing principles, working with groups like the Midwest Renewable Energy Association to connect career-seekers to job training and scholarships, Garcia said. It’s also seeking to make Highland Park the site for assembling the solar streetlights, made by Ypsilanti, Michigan–based Solartonic, that it hopes to install with a $5 million grant from the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office.
“Nobody was immediately responsive to something as novel as asolar-powered streetlight,” Garcia said. “But over time, it’s increased in value in terms of what it means to the community.”
Defining the societywide value of community energy resilience
Building the economic case for locally owned and operated energy is hard for disadvantaged communities. And it’s even harder to do when it includes the extra cost of batteries that are necessary to provide power when the utility gridfails.