This Off-Grid Project Is Bringing Streetlights Back to Detroit

When a utility repossessed nearly 1,400 streetlights, 12,000 residents were left in the dark. Now, a non-profit is installing solar-powered versions.
June 24, 2021, 3:48pm
This Off-Grid Project Is Bringing Streetlights Back to Detroit
Image: Soulardarity

When Detroit gas and electricity utility DTE Energy repossessed nearly 1,400 street lamps in Highland Park in 2011, 12,000 residents were left in the dark. 

The 2.9-square-mile city in Michigan, which is surrounded by Detroit, was once home to Ford and Chrysler factories and proudly claims the title of the birthplace of the Model T. But after the downturn of the city’s auto industry, the area saw swift economic and population declines. By 2011, the city owed $4 million to DTE that it did not have. So, the utility settled with the city, wiping its debt in exchange for the removal of a swath of street lamps. 

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Within a year, community-based non-profit Soulardarity formed with the goal of promoting a plan to replace the lost lamps with 1,000 solar alternatives. And this week, the non-profit is making headway on its goal: On Tuesday, Soulardarity successfully installed four solar-powered street lamps. By the end of this week, they plan to install six more. 

“It not only brought physical light, but it brings hope and light to the community,” said Shimekia Nichols, deputy director of Soulardarity. “That was really important to us.”  

In four years of work with Soulardarity, Nichols has taken DTE head-on from many angles. She’s testified at rate case hearings, landed settlements for renewable projects and led utility assistance grants for low-income community members. 

But correcting the long-lasting harm of the street lamp repossession is at the core of her work. The move was derided by residents as a dangerous step at the time. Some worried about finding their way in the dark at night, others feared higher utility bills from lighting the streets with their own porch lamps. 

“After they took the street light from in front of my business, someone climbed onto my roof and stole an air conditioning unit," Bobby Hargrove, a small business owner, told Bloomberg in 2011. "I feel like I'm being punished—I've always paid my bills on time, but they took the street light anyway."

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Though a number of residents voiced concerns about their safety, Mayor Hubert Yopp argued at the time that the decision had not resulted in higher crime rates and he lauded the move for cutting the city’s utility bills by $50,000 a month. 

But Nichols notes that Highland Park residents—92 percent of whom are Black and 47 percent of whom live under the poverty line—were not consulted at any stage of the repossession. 

“The community was not notified before the repossession took place, and many folks didn't understand what was happening until the poles were being removed by the workers,” Nichols said.  

Even so, the utility was able to leave entire blocks of Highland Park in the dark because of its status as a for-profit monopoly. DTE spokesperson Len Singer said the company was “under no obligation to power communities that don't pay their bills, but wanted to maintain some service,” the Associated Press wrote at the time. It opted to remove the poles entirely, rather than disconnecting service, Singer claimed, to avoid confusion. The old poles were sold for scrap.  

In the last decade, Soulardarity has rallied community members behind “people-powered clean energy,” raised grants and donations to fund solar installations, and lobbied Highland Park City Council for permission to place lamps on easements (the grassy space between the sidewalk and the street). Soulardarity has also worked hard to locate and commission Black-owned solar companies in her community to handle the installation process. 

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Soulardarity's lamps look like any other, but with one key difference: a solar panel sits atop a long black pole with a light hanging off it, pulling in electrical current on sunny days and storing the energy in a battery that sits at the base of the pole. The poles also generate public access Wi-Fi. 

As off-grid devices, the lamps operate without any involvement from DTE, which Nichols is striving to help Highland Park residents gain independence from. 

But this work hasn’t always been popular: Convincing local leadership that solar power could reliably solve a longstanding problem was the first challenge, Nichols said. 

“We only have a few friends on city council that really understand the benefit of solar and understand the benefit of community development versus having big developers come in and do these projects with no ownership and no accountability,” Nichols said. “That’s been an uphill battle.” 

She’s spent the last four years with Soulardarity changing minds. And despite doubts over the reliability of renewables, Nichols said that the street lamps have all worked nightly without fail.   

“We're winning folks over,” she said. After this week’s installations, the organization is setting its sights on bringing solar panels to Highland Park homes—starting with 35 by the end of this year. 

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The broader goal of Soulardarity is to reduce the burden of monthly energy bills for her community; in a city where the median household income is $18,000, a number of her neighbors spend anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of their income on utilities. 

As a longtime Detroit resident, Nichols has been at the whim of the city’s utility herself. The mother of two first took notice of her monthly bills when she purchased her first home in 2012—they seemed inexplicably high, she recalls. But then again, like many in her community, Nichols pays some of the highest energy rates in the country.

For Nichols, fighting for energy independence feels personal—building out independent solar projects is a way to take back some of the power DTE has long wielded over her community.

“I was just really determined to stop the generational curse that energy utilities have put on my family, friends and community,” Nichols said. “I remember my grandmother struggling through struggling to pay her bill, and my mother having troubles with keeping the lights on as I was growing up. 

“Once I became a mother I understood more fully why that was the case,” she continued. “I thought that I needed to do something to change that.”