It was a seemingly normal day in Highland Park, Michigan, but when the sun began to dip lower on the horizon and the sky darkened into a speckling of stars, the familiar glow of the city’s street lights was absent. The city had been unable to pay its energy bills, and in 2011, Highland Park’s local utility, DTE Energy, removed the light bulbs in more than 1,000 street lights, leaving residents in the dark.
The citizens of Highland Park knew they could not rely on their utility for support; the solution would have to come from within the community. The idea to install the first solar-powered street light can be credited to three community members working together in a church basement. This street light, financed by a crowdfunding campaign, was installed at 150 Victor Street. With just one street light, an idea was born. Highland Park community activists had caught sight of a larger vision, one of citywide, community-owned solar lighting.
In 2012, the organization Soulardarity was formed, and over the next several years, the movement grew from a single initiative into an organization with the mission of lighting the city through a clean energy system developed and owned by the community. Jackson Koeppel, Soulardarity’s executive director, admits the process was far from easy.
“There are systemic and structural barriers to the problem we wanted to solve. Corporate divestment, structural racism, and the monopoly investor-owned utility system kept blocking the solar street light solution in one form or another,” Koeppel said.
As it turns out, the technology itself was the simple part. Solar-powered street lights collect and store power in a battery during the day to be used at night. The installation cost of the solar lights ranges from $5,500 to $6,500, depending on the model. With maintenance expenses following installation, each light costs roughly $100 per year. Traditional street lights actually cost more in both installation and long-term use because they require a connection to the grid system. Instead of monthly electric bills, the largest cost of solar street lights is replacing the batteries. Additionally, the electric bills for traditional street lights don’t consider the harmful environmental and health effects due to their primary power sources of coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy.
While traditional street lights rely on energy from the electrical grid, solar street lights operate independently with batteries, so even when Highland Park is without power, the street lights will be shining. These lights are even able to power through Michigan’s dark winters. The upper Midwest is often considered inefficient when it comes to maximizing solar energy production, but these batteries are designed to store energy to supply power for five days without sunlight. Michigan actually has a higher average amount of annual sunlight than Germany, which has been leading the world’s solar market for years.
While street lights are often thought of as a municipal service, it became clear this would not be the case in Highland Park. As long as they are acting within the city’s code and ordinances, businesses, schools, churches, and other organizations can own and manage their own street lighting. In Highland Park, there is a democratic membership process that allows the community to share ownership of the street lights installed by Soulardarity. There are ample ways for members to engage in the program. They can join steering committees, attend quarterly meetings, or vote in elections for Soulardarity’s board — which must have a majority of Highland Park residents.
“It takes a little more time and capacity to do things that way, but it's important to the organization that we build leadership and create a culture of collective work and ownership of decisions — because that's what we want the energy system to look like when we're done,” Koeppel said.
Soulardarity believes energy democracy is necessary because the people most impacted by energy decisions should have the greatest voice in shaping them. The current energy system impacts the planet, health, and economy, but those who are most negatively impacted do not have the means to influence this system. Energy democracy gives those communities — often lower income and/or of color — a voice in what their energy system will look like.
Environmental justice is at the forefront of Soulardarity’s mission. They have a strong partnership with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition and advocate for structural change. They empower and enable frontline communities to own and benefit from clean energy systems.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., has praised Soulardarity’s years of hard work in her district.
In a video for Soulardarity’s Grassroots Gala, Tlaib said, “Nowhere more than Michigan’s 13th Congressional District knows what doing nothing at the government level looks like. We are among the most polluted, our children suffer the highest rates of asthma, and we face issues with corporate polluters, water quality, and utilities taking advantage of our residents every single day... Soulardarity has worked to build a brighter, more sustainable future for us all through education, organizing, the expansion of solar-powered energy system rooted in energy democracy, and so much more.”
The efforts do not stop here. Soulardarity continues to work on building a more just and sustainable community. They’ve supported the Equitable Internet Initiative to come into Highland Park, and hope it will be a prelude to citywide Wi-Fi through the solar lights. They are also close to launching a cooperative energy enterprise. They continue to engage in numerous educational initiatives and support other neighborhoods with their own solar lighting.
These issues do not just exist in Michigan, and Soulardarity is determined to use their success as a model for others. This past fall, they released a Blueprint for Energy Democracy, and hope other communities can use it to initiate similar projects.
“Our goal is to make Highland Park a global model of sustainability and self-determination. We want to see an energy future that is safe, affordable, and democratic,” Koeppel said.
In 2011, the local utility failed the citizens of Highland Park and left them in the dark. This is an example of one of the many effects of racial and economic injustice that has plagued the city for decades. The community-wide mobilization that followed is one of hope and inspiration. In a five-year report on Soulardarity’s impacts, Koeppel reflected on the work that has been completed and the hope he has for the future.
“The arc of history only bends toward justice because we take it upon ourselves to bend it,” he said. “Working together, we have made real impacts in people’s lives and built an organization which I believe will not only bring light back to Highland Park’s streets, but power to its people — in every sense.”