Community lighting group to potentially partner with Highland Park on ambitious project

When the gutting of Highland Park's lighting grid left residents in the dark four years ago, a grassroots group called Soulardarity sprang up to try to remedy the problem. Inspired by a mixture of civic duty and environmental concern, the organization took it upon itself to begin installing solar-powered streetlights in darkened corners of the city.

Up until now, Soulardarity has adopted a one-light-at-a-time approach to their work, but lately their ambitions have grown. They're now setting their sights on restoring everything that was lost when two-thirds of the Detroit enclave's 1,500 streetlights were removed as part of a debt forgiveness deal in 2012. And what's more, they hope to do so by teaming with the city of Highland Park.

"We believe we can light the entire city and that we can do a full installation of about 1,000 street lights all at once," Soulardarity executive director Jackson Koeppel says.  

Essentially, Souladarity wants to work with the city to help them install all the new solar streetlights in one fell swoop.

The solar devices they're tentatively proposing, manufactured by the Ypsilanti-based Solartonic, would make use of photovoltaic solar panels, lithium ion batteries, and 35-watt LED light bulbs. Mounted on 24-foot poles, the solar lights would be free from the electrical grid and last between 15 and 20 years.

Beyond that, they'd also come with smart controls that would allow for dimming and motion sensing, as well as an array of community services like providing WiFi, flashing to alert first responders of an emergency, triangulating gunshots for police, and serving as a community bulletin board via an intranet system.

The bases of the streetlights would be modeled to reflect the historic nature of surrounding neighborhoods.

One of Soulardarity's street lightsOn April 18, members of the group presented their vision at a workshop session of Highland Park's City Council in the hopes of laying a foundation for a partnership. They were accompanied by a representatives from the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office (SEMREO), a collaborative group made up of local governments and nonprofits dedicated to making area communities more energy efficient. SEMREO has partnered with Soulardarity by providing technical and financing expertise.

During the presentation, members of Soulardarity argued that working with them on the  solar lighting project would lower carbon emissions, encourage job creation and economic development, and be a cost-effective choice for Highland Park.

According to an analysis conducted with the assistance of SEMREO, Soulardarity found that installing 1,000 community-owned solar lights would cost the city $5.8 million, $100,000 more than having DTE install comparable grid-powered LED lights.

Ongoing costs over the next 15 years, however, would only be $1.2 million, compared to a $4.3 million estimate for DTE. There would also be zero CO2 emissions under their community-owned solar plan, as opposed to a projected 1,024 metric tons with a conventional lighting approach.

Estimates were based on DTE's proposed 2017 tariff schedule and average urban installation costs from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and Power Grid International, as well as previous installations in Highland Park. Financing costs were not factored into the projection.

"The proposal Soulardarity has put together is very competitive with anything the utility could do and probably cheaper over the lifecycle of the light," SEMREO executive director Rich Bunch says. "We believe that this model has the opportunity to go even further than municipalities that own their streetlights in money saving."

"Here, they're going to make their own power too," he adds.

During the meeting, Soulardarity members also made a case that the project would spur development by establishing Highland Park's reputation as a clean energy hub and keeping an estimated $16 million a year spent on energy by residents circulating in the local economy.

During a Q&A session following the presentation, council member Titus McClary pointedly asked how a one-family household with three children living on assistance would be able to afford installing a light by their home.  Following that, other members of the body asked for details about the price tags of individual lights.

Soulardarity program director Nikkia Jones responded by reiterating that her organization is pushing for a citywide installation effort. The group wants the city to help them with the expense and logistics of the entire project. As for the cost of buying and installing, one of the solar lights would cost about $4,000 apiece if all done at the same time, versus $9,000 apiece if done individually.

Soulardarity hopes to fund their solar light installation endeavor through a combination of gift capital, social investment, tax credits, and non-extractive lending. The financing models they're proposing include municipal ownership of the lights, a lease-purchase agreement with SEMREO issuing bonds to pay for projects costs, and a service purchase arrangement where SEMREO would own the lights.

Toward the end of Soulardarity's meeting, McClary asked why Soulardarity hadn't first reached out to Mayor Hubert Yopp's administration to approve their plan.

"I invited them for a presentation," responded council president Rodney Patrick. "I believe we need to look at alternative energy. It's time we have that discussion."

Koeppel says his group has since reached out to the administration and hopes to meet with them next week, with the goal of acquiring a letter of intent before May 16 so they can submit an application for a low-interest Qualified Energy Conservation Bond from the federal government.

Soulardarity and Highland Park might be on the verge of an unprecedented collaboration between city and grassroots that could provide a blueprint for further projects in cities across the country. Not to mention carbon-free lighting for its residents.

For those interested in further information, Soulardarity will be holding a public discussion on their proposal on April 30 from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Prayer Temple of Love Community Center at 17 Highland Street in Highland Park.
David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.
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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.