Jackson Koeppel, outgoing executive director and co-founder of Soulardarity, and a solar-powered streetlight near the Soulardarity office. Credit: Nick Hagen / for the Energy News Network

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In 2011, the streets of Highland Park, Michigan, went dark.

DTE Energy repossessed around 1,000 streetlights from the financially struggling city — a drastic move by the monopoly utility that sparked the formation of the nonprofit Soulardarity with a DIY infrastructure project.

The group installed half a dozen off-the-grid, solar-powered streetlights throughout Highland Park over the next few years. When they approached the City Council in 2016 about funding a plan to convert all of its streetlights, the official response was a mix of skepticism and disinterest. 

The nonprofit was generally viewed by city leaders as a noisemaker whose views didn’t represent those of residents. Jackson Koeppel, Soulardarity’s executive director and one of its founders, thinks DTE Energy’s status as the city’s largest taxpayer also likely chilled reception to the nonprofit’s ideas at City Hall.

A streetlight near the Soulardarity office space. Credit: Nick Hagen / for the Energy News Network

A decade after Soulardarity formed, there’s a growing sense of optimism among its team. After years of feeling like outsiders, the group’s opinions and expertise are increasingly being called on by city leaders, especially since a wave of new leadership on the council. 

“City Council is now more willing to listen to Soulardarity’s proposals,” said Highland Park Councilmember Kendrich Bates. “We need to start the discussion and talk about solar projects that have been successful elsewhere that we can replicate here, or talk about how to help individuals, families or community members generate energy at a lower cost.” 

Soulardarity’s members and political observers say several developments are driving the change: effective organizing, mounting frustration with DTE’s service and rates, and growing demand for clean, local energy.

The nonprofit has a staff of four and is about to add two more positions, while Koeppel is leaving his post in July and will be replaced by current staffer Shimekia Nichols. It’s led by a majority Highland Parker board and has around 200 members. It focuses on the energy challenges facing the 3-square-mile city that’s nearly 90% African American and surrounded by Detroit. 

Koeppel cited efforts on which the city and nonprofit are partnering, like Highland Park’s COVID-19 Just Recovery Task Force. It’s calling on the Michigan Public Services Commission to order DTE to refund customers for an excess $30 million in profits that the utility reaped during the pandemic. 

City Council President Carlton Clyburn joined a Soulardarity press conference last July and signed a letter to state regulators that called for reliability improvements to the city’s grid, and for DTE to compensate Highland Parkers for expenses stemming from frequent and long power outages. A local school official also sent a supporting letter. 

Meanwhile, the nonprofit and its partners are making progress on a demonstration block of solar-powered, smart street lights that offer free public WiFi. When that’s complete, Soulardarity plans to present a new plan to the City Council to install them citywide, Koeppel said. 

On March 15, city officials discussed a “solar ordinance” that could establish guidelines for the inclusion of renewable energy as Highland Park redevelops.

“There’s going to be an opportunity as some of these empty blocks are redeveloped to start considering solar or renewable energy facilities,” said Damon Garret, director of the city’s water department. He told the council that could mean solar panels, wind turbines, battery storage, electric vehicle chargers or solar-powered street lighting are included on large projects, while it would immediately allow for a nonprofit to move forward with solar-powered WiFi hotspots. 

The ordinance is a remarkable development, and though Soulardarity didn’t initiate it, it’s part of a larger shift driven by the nonprofit, which is increasingly working with the city or receiving support from officials who see value in the partnership. Together they’re developing solutions to the expensive and unreliable energy that’s a problem for many Highland Parkers, and making meaningful progress. 

Juan Shannon photographed at the Parker Village garden and aquaponics operation. Credit: Nick Hagen / for the Energy News Network

Several council members have vocally supported Parker Village, a $30 million redevelopment project that will be powered by solar energy and is headed up by Soulardarity member Juan Shannon. It calls for 18 single-family homes and eight flats and townhouses. The neighborhood will be “off the grid,” Shannon said, and hold an aquaponics farm, urban farm, electric vehicle chargers, and solar street lights. 

The development also includes plans for the nation’s only stand alone, solar-powered cafe, as well as a community resource center where Highland Parkers can learn about renewables. 

Simultaneously, Councilmember Bates is urging the developer of Hamilton Crossing, another large redevelopment project, to include a solar array, and Soulardarity is assisting with that effort. Bates said he sees value in projects like Parker Village that include solar because they not only reduce costs and increase energy stability, but are an economic tool. 

“It can help lead to revitalization,” Bates said. “People say ‘Hey, I want to live there if they have this infrastructure that offsets energy costs. Maybe that’s the type of community that I want to live in.’”

Soulardarity’s growing success also shows how grassroots organizing is increasingly shaping energy policy at the local level as “communities are being hit on all sides with energy issues,” said Bridget Vial, energy democracy organizer with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, which represents about 50 groups statewide.

A symbiotic relationship can develop among technically proficient groups like Soulardarity and municipalities that offer different forms of resources. 

“Organizations like Soulardarity and others around the country … have built the administrative capacity to do mutual aid, to put solar panels on houses, and so that is a useful tool for municipalities, and it’s a really beneficial partnership on both sides,” Vial said.

The Parker Village garden and aquaponics operation under construction. Credit: Nick Hagen / for the Energy News Network

‘We have brought answers and solutions’

Bates told the Energy News Network that he suspects there’s more interest in renewables locally because DTE’s reliability and rates are such a problem. 

“Because we’re a poor community, people are hypersensitive to rate increases and reliability issues,” Bates said. “My constituents come to me and are hypersensitive about outages. They say, ‘The power goes out. It’s not working. I don’t have heat. I’ve lost food.’” 

In a statement to the Energy News Network, DTE spokesperson Peter Ternes claimed Highland Parkers “have experienced significantly fewer outages than the rest of the DTE system,” and noted that the company is “investing proportionally more in Highland Park infrastructure than in the rest of our service territory.” 

But many Highland Parkers don’t believe that their service is better than the rest of the company’s territory. Soulardarity member Frankie Davis said it’s not uncommon for Highland Parkers to lose electricity for several days at a time, whether it’s in the dead of winter or during heat waves, and that costs residents money. 

There’s no recourse or accountability, Davis said, and the helplessness and frustration that residents feel with the company could explain why Soulardarity’s ideas are resonating. 

“DTE will treat you like their minion, like you’re a tick on their arm,” she said. “Who’s got our back?”

Koeppel said the group’s message is also well received because it offers solutions to these kinds of problems and seeks input from Highland Parkers instead of just making noise or critiquing City Hall. Soulardarity “knocks on most doors in Highland Park every year for one reason or another,” regularly surveys its members, holds quarterly strategic meetings and partners with other Highland Park-led groups on projects. 

“We have done deep work to develop demands that reflect the broad community,” Koeppel added. “For every ounce of pressure we have put on the city, we have brought answers and solutions. We’re here to stay. We’re dedicated.” 

New utility poles that run from DTE’s substation through Highland Park. Credit: Nick Hagen / for the Energy News Network

The city’s largest taxpayer

Some in Soulardarity say some of the city’s opposition to its past or current proposals, and the group largely being shut out from having a seat at the table for so many years, can partly be attributed to DTE. The company accounts for nearly 10% of total property taxes paid, or about $1 million per year.

Koeppel noted a 2018 city deal to allow DTE to install 60-foot transmission towers throughout Highland Park so the company could close substations in nearby cities. In exchange, DTE paid for about $150,000 worth of costs for new streetlights and LED upgrades. 

“The city should’ve gotten more out of the deal, but because of the position in terms of reliance on that tax revenue and the fear of losing the substation, the city wasn’t willing to negotiate harder for that,” Koeppel said. 

This year, Mayor Hubert Yopp proposed appointing a DTE lobbyist to a compensation committee that will make recommendations on his salary, which Koeppel labeled a “strong conflict of interest.” 

Juan Shannon photographed at the Parker Village garden and aquaponics operation. Credit: Nick Hagen / for the Energy News Network

While most councilmembers have shown some support for Parker Village, the city’s administration has so far been unwilling to sell city-owned land around the site that Shannon said he needs to finance and complete the project, though he added that he was told it may be sold to him after the city clears the titles of all of its properties. That could cause Parker Village a significant and perhaps detrimental delay, Shannon said, and he questioned if it had to do with the project being “off the grid.”  

“It’s very odd that this project will bring a lot of national attention but it’s being ignored by the city,” he added. 

Councilmember Bates told the Energy News Network that he doesn’t believe that DTE has much influence on local policy or decision making. He said Soulardarity’s proposals have at times been too expensive for the resource-strapped city to seriously consider. 

But the March 15 council meeting offered the latest sign that that view is changing. Councilmembers asked city staff questions about solar panels’ lifespan, ability to withstand the harsh winters, and whether they can be mounted on Highland Park’s aging buildings.  

Bates called the discussion of a new ordinance “a good first step.” 

“We’re just catching up to everyone else, more or less,” he said, “but this is something that should’ve been discussed a long time ago.”

Tom Perkins

Tom Perkins is a freelance reporter based in Detroit.