Highland Park, Mich., is a three-square-mile incorporated city situated within Metro Detroit. In the 1940s and 1950s, when the auto industry was beginning to boom, the city's population hovered between 45,000 and 50,000. These days, it is about 10,000, over 90 percent of whom are African Americans.
In 2012, the local utility shut off over 1,000 streetlights in Highland Park as a result of the city government's inability to pay a whopping $4 million backlog of utility bills.
In response, a membership-based 501(c)(3) non-profit community organization, called Soulardarity, was formed. The organization's mission is to help community members become more energy self-sufficient.
"One of the first projects we got involved in was to create and install community-owned solar-powered LED streetlights in the community," said Jackson Koeppel, executive director of Soulardarity. The first phase of the project involved installing six such streetlights.
Then, in 2015, Ali Dirul, who had bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering, founded Ryter Cooperative Industries (RCI) in Highland Park. RCI is a "social impact enterprise" that was created to work with grassroots organizations to provide solar engineering solutions to the community and nearby areas.
"We were founded initially in order to set up a power station at an urban farm," said Dirul, executive director and engineering director of RCI. "Someone had donated 10 solar panels and some other equipment, and we began working with that. We pulled together a number of people who had some technical background and were interested in renewable energy, and we designed a power station for the farm, including a lithium battery pack."
The result is a 3-kilowatt microgrid, called the Dirul Energy Station, which now powers the lights, tools and other equipment for the D-Town Farm, a 7.5-acre urban farm, run by Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and other organizations.
Realizing they had similar interests and goals, Soulardarity and RCI began working together. One of their first joint projects was to focus on economic efficiency. In 2016, the two organizations created Power Up, a cooperative purchasing program designed to be able to purchase solar equipment, LED lights, other assorted energy-related equipment, at discounted rates.
Since then, RCI has focused on a number of innovative projects, including the installation of a solar phone charging station for participants of the 2016 African World Festival, as well as designing solar-powered lawn mowers for the community.
However, its primary emphasis these days is setting up motion-sensing, solar-powered LED lights in the community, especially on several garages in Highland Park alleys.
"While we are involved in a number of projects, our lighting projects are really the ones that are the most valuable," said Karanja Famodou, RCI's co-director and project manager.
In the meantime, Soulardarity has focused on efforts to create models that ensure solar is more accessible to low-income people in general.
"We also want to create models to get solar more visible in the community through structures that make it easy for everyone to participate," Koeppel said.
Work is just beginning. Working with the Oakland University School of Engineering and Alternative Energies, RCI researched and designed an energy conservation and alternative energy model to achieve the goal of zero net energy usage for a home built in nearby Rochester, Mich.
Throughout all of it, Koeppel, Dirul and Famodou agree that one of the most important keys to success of all of the projects is community cooperation.
"In many cases, it is the people in the community who are the most excited to help, not only with individual projects, but with the whole program and organization as a whole," Dirul said. "In a lot of communities, there is a lot of dreaming, where people talk about what would be nice to have, but here, we have a community that takes ideas all the way to actual manifestation. In fact, people we have helped in the past are now working with us to help other people."
While a significant amount of progress has been made in Highland Park, both strategically and technically, there is a long way to go, according to Koeppel.
"For example, we know there is so much more opportunity for distributed energy in the community, which would not only ensure more grid reliability, but would also actually create more jobs," he said.