Detroit Solar Streetlight Program Tests Community Ownership

A community-led nonprofit in metro Detroit has begun installing solar-powered streetlights a decade after a utility repossessed over a thousand of the area’s light poles.

The effort is meant as a proof of concept in a quest to create a community-owned grid in a small city that’s predominantly Black and has a median income of $16,000.

“We want to have ownership; it’s really important to us,” said Shimekia Nichols, executive director of Soulardarity, which last week installed its first 10 solar-powered streetlights in Highland Park.

The group was founded after electric utility DTE Energy in 2011 took the streetlights as a means of collecting on the $4 million the city owed for electricity. The utility left about 500 lights in the small community, which is bounded on all sides by Detroit.

“Residents were not knowledgeable that this repossession was taking place until workers were out literally pulling poles from the ground,” Nichols said.

The utility said at the time that removing the streetlights was a better alternative than just cutting off the power.

Since then, Soulardarity secured funding to install Wi-Fi-equipped, solar-powered streetlights around two community centers in the city, called Avalon Village and Parker Village, paid for through community fundraising efforts.

A celebration of the new streetlights planned for this weekend in Avalon Village was canceled due to bad weather and will be rescheduled.

Soulardarity’s work has begun to attract national attention. California-based the Solutions Project has contributed toward the group’s $10 million goal to fully fund replacing the streetlights that were repossessed.

“Soulardarity is a shining model of the benefits of investing in community-led solutions,” Gloria Walton, president and CEO of the Solutions Project, said in a statement. “Their community organizing, technological savvy, and strategic vision is powerful in every meaning of the word.”

Soulardarity says that if its model is replicated citywide, Highland Park will no longer be beholden to an outside utility.

“We want to also have decisionmaking ability and ownership so that we won’t have this situation repeat again with the repossession,” Nichols said.

Since she joined the group in 2017, she’s helped lead educational efforts related to initiatives like community-owned power agreements, or COPAs, that would allow the city to operate its own independent solar-powered electric grid.

In a court ruling in April, Soulardarity also won an agreement with DTE that’s expected to result in three solar projects bringing 250 kilowatts total to Highland Park.

Nichols said she wants to take Soulardarity’s growing influence all the way to Michigan’s Capitol to codify a path to COPAs and clean energy. She’s been coordinating with other grassroots groups in Michigan to support community-owned power agreements in other small, predominantly Black or low-income communities, so that Soulardarity’s model can be replicated elsewhere.

“This project to me allows us to be a model for not only energy resilience … but for energy democracy and making sure that the voices of those that are most impacted are being heard,” Nichols said.