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Building resilient communities: Soulardarity’s plan for energy democracy

This Detroit-area collective is installing solar streetlights, exploring community solar and advocating for policy change in pursuit of a carbon-free future.
By Jeff St. John

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A colorful mural on a small solar-powered shed that shows two hands holding soil and a seedling
This mural on a solar shed at Highland Park, Michigan’s Parker Village evokes the industrial past and clean energy future that community groups like Soulardarity are working to achieve. (Ifalola/James Jones)

This article is part of our special series Power by the People: Clean Energy from the Grassroots.

As a longtime resident of Highland Park, Michigan, De’Angelus Garcia Jr. has seen his community undergo a big transformation. A decade 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 a fairer, more sustainable energy future. It’s also a powerful 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 at large.

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 a community of 11,000 that’s faced high unemployment and decaying infrastructure since the auto industry abandoned it between the 1950s and the 1990s.

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 the odds.”

Neighbors opted for the latter, starting a crowdfunding 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, he said.

Nearly half of Highland Park’s residents, 88 percent of whom are Black, live below the federal poverty line. DTE Energy has pushed through a series of rate hikes over the past six years, and utility bills can claim from a third to a fifth of a typical 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 a DTE 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 a community’s capacity to make change on its own.

We’re a member-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 goes down.

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 as well.”

Soulardarity’s solar streetlights project is a good 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 a long-term plan to replace all 1,000 through a proposed $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 a more cost-effective solution — if the city can arrange effective financing for installation and ongoing operations.

Soulardarity cost comparison chart for solar-powered, community-financed streetlights versus utility rate-based streetlights
Soulardarity’s analysis indicates that community-financed solar streetlights are more cost-effective for DTE ratepayers than the utility’s plan. (Soulardarity)

Data like this helps build the case for financing a community project that Highland Park residents can’t bankroll on their own, Garcia said. Soulardarity’s 17 streetlights deployed to date represent 10 years of work and half a million 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, a nonprofit 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 a settlement 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 a pathway 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 a way 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 a solar project development process that is entirely community-led,” starting with forming community advisory boards that spend up to a year assessing what’s best for a community’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 a project owned by a utility 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., she added.

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 a solar-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 grid fails.

But the value of that distributed energy becomes starkly apparent when disaster strikes. While the hurricanes that ravaged Puerto Rico last month and Florida this month knocked out power to millions of utility customers, people in individual homes and entire neighborhoods backed up by solar and battery systems were able to charge cellphones and medical equipment and keep lights, refrigerators and air conditioners running.

That’s why advocates are making the case that funding opportunities should be extended to storage so that vulnerable communities have power when the grid fails — a message that some funders, at least, are starting to hear.

For instance, Together New Orleans’ Community Lighthouse project is raising $13.8 million to build 24 solar and battery-powered resiliency centers across the state, 16 of them in New Orleans. The coalition of faith-based and community groups will make its self-powered sites available to people left homeless or without power or water after the region’s hurricanes or floods, and use them as staging sites for neighborhood rescue and recovery efforts.

Map of proposed "community lighthouse" locations in New Orleans
A map of proposed locations for "community lighthouses" equipped with solar and batteries in New Orleans (Together New Orleans)

Together New Orleans is one of 14 community groups that’s secured technical assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Storage for Social Equity Initiative. The newly launched program is part of the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative, which has pledged to direct at least 40 percent of nearly $30 billion and counting in federal climate-related funding to historically disadvantaged communities.

Some of the groups the Biden storage initiative is working with serve people without grid access, such as Native Renewables, which partners with off-grid residents of the Navajo Nation and Hopi tribe in Arizona and New Mexico and the Hoʻāhu Energy Cooperative supporting Native Hawaiians on the island of Molokai. The Makah Tribe of Neah Bay, Washington is exploring on-site renewables and energy storage to bolster sometimes unreliable grid service. Other projects in Wisconsin and Washington state are targeting energy resiliency for health care facilities.

In May, the Energy Storage for Social Equity Initiative released a report analyzing barriers to installing battery storage in disadvantaged communities like these. Batteries don’t often appear cost-effective when compared to the cost of delivering power from big power plants and utility power grids that benefit from economies of scale and access to cheaper capital. But this means that disadvantaged communities are often forced to live with poorer-quality utility service since it’s difficult for utilities to provide the increased investment required based solely on economic reasons.”

In other words, utilities can struggle to make the money back from the cost of providing service to lower-income communities. This is the same dynamic that led to DTE pulling its streetlights from Highland Park. It’s also led utilities to invest less in upgrading the grid in low-income regions compared to those experiencing economic growth, according to a recently released study from Soulardarity and We the People Michigan.

Local energy storage could be an extremely cost-effective decision” for utilities to meet government requirements to provide reliable service to all communities, the report states. But that concept hasn’t yet been applied to supporting distributed solar and storage in a comprehensive way.

Michelle Moore, CEO of Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit Groundswell, agreed that monetary value, transactional value, is an inadequate way to quantify and determine the value of investments when it comes to what’s important for helping people bounce back and revive and thrive after disasters.”

Groundswell launched its community solar program in 2015. It now supports projects serving more than 5,500 income-qualified customers in Washington, D.C. and is developing more community solar in Maryland, New York and Illinois. It’s also supporting resiliency projects such as the solar-plus-battery systems it’s deploying in partnership with the city of Baltimore and the Maryland Energy Administration.

Its initial projects with Baltimore church Empowerment Temple and nonprofit group City of Refuge have expanded to plans for up to 30 sites backed by state funding. Those centers are located within walking distance of most parts of the city for ease of access after storms or other emergency events, much as Together New Orleans is doing with its community resilience sites.

A map of Baltimore’s proposed community resiliency hubs
A map of Baltimore’s proposed community resiliency hubs (City of Baltimore)

When you’re investing in resilience for a community, the trade-offs are not just poles and wires versus distributed energy,” said Moore, a former senior executive with the U.S. Green Building Council and sustainability and infrastructure delivery chief for the Obama administration. The value of solar savings, or of demand management that batteries can deliver — ultimately that’s more money for the missions of the institutions where these systems are located.” 

Fighting for a 100 percent carbon-free city 

Solar panels, backup batteries and energy efficiency improvement are important both as building blocks of community revitalization and as essential components of a more holistic vision of sustainability, Garcia said.

Avalon Village in Highland Park is a powerful example of this. The sustainable eco-village” was started by Shamayim Harris, known as Mama Shu” to friends and neighbors, in honor of her two-year-old son, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 2007. Avalon Village includes a Homework House” for school kids, a marketplace for local women-owned businesses, a community garden to provide fresh produce and a venue for performances and community events.

An overhead view of a green park-like area with trees and solar streetlights
An aerial view of Avalon Village’s community gathering space, with a solar-powered, WiFi-enabled streetlight in the foreground (Avalon Village)

Now it has free internet access, thanks to the mesh Wi-Fi built into the latest solar streetlights deployed by Soulardarity. That’s another much-needed service in a community where less than half of households have internet.

Another Wi-Fi-equipped streetlight serves Parker Village, a redevelopment project led by Highland Park native Juan Shannon that aims to convert a former elementary school and nearby houses into a self-sustaining neighborhood. The plan includes an aquaponics garden and farmers market, a solar-powered café and retail center, and scores of single-family and multifamily net-zero energy” homes that consume less energy than they generate from on-site solar over the course of the year.

Soulardarity and Parker Village have enlisted outside help for this vision, working with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) to publish a 2021 report, Let Communities Choose, that detailed how rooftop and community solar could cut costs, improve reliability and reduce the carbon-emissions impact of the city’s electricity supply.

This year, UCS followed up with an analysis of how Parker Village can develop a solar-and-battery-powered microgrid capable of operating independently of the DTE grid.

The traditional utility model is large, faraway power plants, often fossil-fueled and polluting,” said James Gignac, senior Midwest energy analyst for UCS’ Climate & Energy program. Communities use the service and have to pay the bill, and that’s about it.”

But with newer technologies that are increasingly cost-effective and available — things like distributed solar, community-owned solar, battery storage — there’s much more potential for local decisions,” he said. What we need now is for policy to match those technological possibilities and begin to shift utilities [away from being] insulated decision-makers and more toward [being] partners for communities like Highland Park that have a desire and a vision for a different type of service.”

Policy decisions at the state and federal level can make or break community energy investments, Gignac noted. The UCS analysis showed how changes in state policy could yield dramatic improvements in how quickly rooftop and community solar could pay back the cost of investment and start yielding economic returns. Those policies include reinstating a statewide net-metering regime that was replaced with a less lucrative structure in 2018, as well as offering state tax credits or opportunities to claim state-level renewable portfolio standard credits for customer-owned solar systems.

Chart of payback times for Highland Park, Mich. solar installations with different state-level policies in place
(Union of Concerned Scientists)

Soulardarity is pursuing two strategies,” Gignac said: doing the things they can to help their communities, while at the same time leveraging partnerships and advocacy to change the system.”

John Farrell has been assisting communities on both these fronts for more than 16 years at the Energy Democracy Initiative of the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He’s worked on campaigns to challenge utilities’ monopoly control over energy generation and delivery and expand net-metering and community solar policies. He’s also worked with communities creating solar cooperatives and community choice aggregations to self-fund solar installations, and as a part of coalitions that have secured funding to support communities facing job losses and economic dislocation from closing coal power plants.

Most of what we see around cooperative ownership or community ownership happens despite the structure of the markets,” Farrell said. Our work has been figuring out from communities how [they] managed to overcome those barriers and how…you do that in ways that address historical harms, whether that’s environmental justice around pollution, or racial disparities, or economic disparities.”

In March, the city of Highland Park, backed by a coalition including Soulardarity, was selected to participate in DOE’s Communities LEAP (Local Energy Action Program), another Justice40 Initiative pilot designed to give communities direct control of their clean energy future.” The program is aimed not at direct investments but rather at providing up to $500,000 in in-kind technical assistance to 24 cities, counties and tribal governments.

While the community’s plan for how to use that technical assistance is still being developed, the overarching goal is to create a 100 percent carbon-free city,” Garcia said. While that’s admittedly ambitious, it’s in line with the city’s evolution, from solar-powered streetlights to rooftop and community solar, and potentially, self-powered microgrids, he said.

It’s also the same goal that society at large must pursue to forestall the greatest harms of climate change, which means that, in this sense, Highland Park might be leading the way for us all.

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.