Self-Empowerment through Solar Energy

Grassroots Partnership Creates Synergy With Streetlights

by Eric Thomas Campbell

In the city of Highland Park and several enclaves in Detroit, solar power is lighting streets that were previously dark. These lights are a result of sustained efforts by new community partnerships seeking long term solutions to growing energy demands. In the process, they are developing ways for new forms of self sustaining energy creation, hoping to leave in the past the inhumane process of denying people light and heat because they cannot pay ever higher electric bills.

Ryter Cooperative Industries (RCI) provides technological support and direct services  to increase energy efficiency for small businesses and organizations. This involves everything from energy auditing to technical training to vetting solar lighting hardware for community partners.

But beyond those practical applications  lies a deeper, more intentional objective about a solar fueled energy future. According to RCI Founder and CEO, Ali Dirul, RCI engages residents who have been at the mercy of energy monopolies by  increasing community ownership of the skills and materials required to create energy. RCI seeks opportunities to help marginalized citizens manage their own sources of energy. Its an effort that has saved folks money, introduced them to green energy, and brought engaged community activists together to build and maintain local energy infrastructure.

“As long as people have their very basic needs met or satisfied, we can live relatively happy lives— when we have food, water, shelter, and now in the age that we’re in, energy falls under that,” Dirul told Riverwise. “Having electrical energy is one of those things that is no longer a luxury. It’s one of those things that are necessities because a lot of people actually rely on this to live, whether they’re on respirators or ventilators or they can’t stand heat that is too high or they need air conditioning— these are things that are just a part of society now.”

Installed at D-Town Farm in Detroit’s Rouge Park, RCI’s inaugural public project was the Dirul Power Station. It is known as Detroit’s first off-grid energy station designed for urban agriculture. The station was implemented to enhance energy production on the farm, and to coexist with other clean energy projects like the windmill pump in the water retention pond.

RCI has developed and presented other public projects for site-specific purposes— the solar powered lawn mower for Highland Park, a solar phone-charging station presented at Detroit’s African World Festival. But the project that has gone the furthest toward building community and social capital is the Highland Park solar lighting project, implemented in partnership with the non-profit coalition, Soulardarity.

Soulardarity recently emerged out of the years-long financial crisis in Highland Park which culminated in a 2011 repossession by DTE of the majority of the public street lights. Highland Park went dark.

At that time, Soulardarity founder Jackson Koeppel, was a recent Detroit transplant an environmental activist. He teamed up with Highland Park activists and crowdfunded the first effort to use solar energy to bring light back to the city. , The first light they installed still shines at 150 Victor, in view of the old Henry Ford plant. Those initial efforts led to Soulardarity’s bulk purchasing program in 2016, allowing people to purchase solar street lights and solar porch lights at discount prices.

RCI has acted as the middle man between Soulardarity members and solar light manufacturers during the process, vetting products, purchasing solar light hardware, and training people to install and maintain the lights. According to Soulardarity program leader Maria Thomas, residents in Highland Park and the North End have since purchased and installed 50 lights mounted on porches and garages to illuminate the areas around their homes. The Detroit enclaves of Jefferson East and Islandview also have member organizations that are planning solar light initiatives. But as the efforts spreads geographically, Thomas says the goal is to stay true to Soulardarity’s original intentions.

“Our focus has been on the lighting because we’re based in Highland Park, our primary mission is to serve Highland Park, and to assist Highland Park in relieving the burden that was created when the lights were repossessed,” explained Thomas.

Soulardarity has emerged with a dedicated collective formed around the issue of ‘energy democracy’ and the idea that those most negatively impacted by the fossil-fuel economy are the best prepared to lead us out of it. They are currently advancing a proposal to Highland Park officials and residents to increase their economic and social investment in solar energy by purchasing in 1,000 solar streetlights. It’s a plan that would save the city of Highland Park money and create longer-term opportunities for companies like RCI and other green energy start-ups.

RCI is looking to start manufacturing their own solar lighting parts and Soulardarity is hoping to increase their capacity by scaling up to solar-powered generators large enough to power residential properties.

“I believe that it would solve a lot of problems,” Thomas says. “Not only would it decrease people’s bills to DTE and eliminate a lot of the reasons for shutoffs, it would also create jobs– living wage jobs. And it would fulfill the need for a niche industry in Detroit or Highland Park.”

Thomas emphasizes the opportunity to train and hire people in the Highland Park community if city officials decide to pursue an ‘off the grid’ solar light energy strategy. Thomas says these are skills that, as other markets move toward solar energy, would be transferable and highly sought-after. Most importantly, it would project the small municipality into a leader position in the green energy movement.  “These are skills that are not going away,” stresses Thomas. “Solar is growing, its not going to shrink.”

Dirul says that the relationship between Soulardarity and RCI grew naturally because the of the complementary skill sets they possess. Both organizations wanted to make an immediate impact and both wanted people to recognize their energy resources.

“We’re very supportive of the mission and the underlying message that Soulardarity stands for, which is energy democracy and having community owned utilities,” says Dirul. “The people that are affected by something should have some say or control over it, at least enough to say, maybe we don’t want these lights from this company, or we want these other lights. We’re the ones who have to live here.”

Soulardarity has made proposals to Highland Park City officials to light the entire city in this manner. The move would be a major shift in the way we understand our relationship to utilities and our role in the clean energy economy, according to Dirul. He reminds us that municipalities have the liberty to decide to put its own power plant in the city and have that run, or decide to adopt community-based power generation on a decentralized grid. The increased leverage ultimately comes from the increased participation and awareness of the citizens.

“Now, everybody who has a (solar) light on their home can say, at least to a small degree, I’m an energy producer,” Dirul observes. “It kind of gets them in the game. They can say, wow, I do have solar panels on my lights, on my house, and I’m looking to have more. I can actually increase this and get more lights or show somebody what it is I have and they can go out and get some for themselves. It gives them a sense of pride like, wow, I’m now part of this green, clean energy movement now where prior to that, they were at the whim of the utilities. It’s a different feeling that a person gets.”

Although companies like DTE are still considered ‘public utilities’, the public increasingly has no say as to how the company is operated. Furthermore, they hold a monopoly in the energy sector and lawmakers have done little to address that. Highland Park residents, on the other hand, are creating leverage for consumers by resisting the traditional monopoly created in larger markets.

“We’re finding that many people may not know about solar and the capabilities of solar in lower-income communities,” continues Thomas. “But once we introduce them to it, … a lot of them want to reduce their carbon footprint, because so many families are impacted by the pollutants that are part of the residual part of the environment.”

Once known as the city that became dark because it could not meet its light bills, Highland Park residents, Soulardarity and RCI are promising a much more democratic, sustainable future.

 

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