This post was written by Cory Connolly and originally published by Mosaic.
As the costs of solar technologies decrease, the opportunities for innovative solutions to community problems are increasing. Economic hardships have hit America’s communities hard and, in many communities, electricity prices continue to rise as spending on local public services continues to fall. From 2010 to 2011, the state and local sectors contracted by 3.4 percent, the largest contraction since World War II and that contraction continues to be felt in neighborhoods across the country. Spending cuts have come in all shapes and sizes; some cities have reduced the local police force, while others have slashed the budgets for local fire departments.
In Highland Park, Michigan (a city within the city of Detroit), having already cut funding for the fire department and other public services, tough economic times have caused even more severe cuts to public services. One of the most recent, and potentially the most public, occurred in the winter of 2011. In order to pay a $4 million debt to local utility company Detroit Edison, the city removed two-thirds of the community’s street lights. After 1300 of the city’s streetlights were physically removed, residents were asked to leave their porch lights on at night. In this small, urban community, a group of dedicated community members are applying off-grid solar technology and a simple crowdfunding model to light the streets of Highland Park.
With local residents concerned about safety, a community organization called Soulardarity is working to solve the problem in a novel way using crowdfunding and solar power. The project, initiated by A.J. O’Neil, Kyle Wohlfort, and Jackson Koepel, is helping bring streetlights back to Highland Park. Throughout the summer and fall of 2012, the Soulardarity team successfully launched a campaign to crowdfund the first solar powered streetlight in Highland Park. While the Indiegogo (for more information on this and other crowdfunding platforms see How To Crowdfund Your Project) campaign funded the installation of a single streetlight on Victor Street in Highland Park, the larger vision of the project is to install over 200 solar powered streetlights over the next several years. Soulardarity is currently in the process of holding a series of community forums to identify priority locations for the next round of installations and is working toward finding ways to move beyond the one-off crowdfunding strategy employed to date (follow on Facebook for further developments).
The campaign, more than simply trying to bring streetlights back to Highland Park, contributes to a broader push toward the development of a clean energy economy in the Midwest. Working with Solar Streetlights USA, which is just one of the many clean energy companies based in Michigan, the project highlights solar’s potential in all communities and specifically the prospects of solar in Michigan.
The Soulardarity campaign in Highland Park makes the following key points about solar and crowdfunding transparent.
First, solar is increasingly viable in locations with comparatively lower solar resources. While this has been true for years (see Germany), seeing more and more solar solutions in places like Michigan helps to dispel myths about the limited practicality of solar in northern latitudes. Solar isn’t a technology reserved for the states and geographies with the most sunshine, it will be reserved for the places that make it easiest to finance and implement.
Second, crowdfunding and declining costs are making solar a viable solution in low-income areas. With 12,000 residents (once 50,000), an unemployment rate of 22%, and with 40% of the population living below the national poverty line, Highland Park isn’t your typical location for solar. A city built at the heart of the second industrial revolution in America, Highland Park was once the home to the respective headquarters of Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Group, but today is considered the poorest city in Michigan. The application of solar in communities like Highland Park is notable. The advancement of solar and creative financing is – and will continue – making solar more accessible for everyone.
This second point is important. As the democratization and decentralization of energy generation via distributed sources occurs, it is crucial to ensure social inclusion. Just as a “democracy” where only a few can vote isn’t a true democracy, the democratization of energy won’t truly be democratic unless everyone can participate. Just as other organizations like Mosaic and RE-volv are helping to democratize solar by allowing people to invest in clean energy, community models across the country are helping ensure that everyone – including communities like Highland Park – can reap the benefits of distributed energy. Soulardarity’s efforts, beyond bringing light to the streets of Highland Park in a novel way, underscore the opportunities that solar and distributed energy technologies can provide in seemingly unlikely settings.
Cory Connolly is a Research Associate at the Environmental Law Institute and is a co-founder of MiGrid Media - a Michigan-based clean energy communications company. Cory has worked on climate change and clean energy at the international, national, state, and local levels and is passionate about the rapid deployment and development of distributed clean energy systems.