Solidarity Through Solar: A City’s Quest for 100% Clean Energy

Published Nov 30, 2021

Energy justice advocate Gracie Wooten and energy analyst James Gignac discuss how science can help a Detroit-area community achieve energy sovereignty by generating and sharing its own electricity.

Guest byline

Gracie Wooten is a long-time resident of Highland Park and a retired Detroit Public School teacher. She continues to be involved in education as a member of the General Baker Institute which holds political education classes for the community.

In this episode

Colleen talks with Gracie and James about:

  • the collaboration between Soulardarity and UCS to help a Detroit-based community become energy independent
  • the scientific modeling that created a specific blueprint for Highland Park, MI
  • what policies are needed for Highland Park to achieve 100% locally-owned clean energy
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:23)
Intro (0:23-2:22)
Interview part 1 (2:22-12:33)
Break (12:33-13:55)
Interview part 2 (13:55-28:15)
Outro (28:15-29:00)


Editing: Omari Spears
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth and Cana Tagawa
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

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Full transcript

Colleen: When I think about the shift to renewable energy that we desperately need in the US, I tend to think either really small—like solar panels on one person’s rooftop—or really big, like federal energy policies that will help transition us all to clean power.

At UCS, we often discuss the roles scientists and policymakers have in shaping the United States’ renewable energy goals. While these recommendations and policies are key in driving effective change... along with the smaller steps individuals can take... there are other pathways to sustainable energy that hadn’t occurred to me, until recently.

For example, what does it look like when a city or town takes charge of its potential to generate energy, and uses it to build a sustainable future? Can residents sharing a community also own and share in its power? Though this works as a metaphor, I mean literal power—how you turn your lights on.

Soulardarity, a nonprofit based in Highland Park, Michigan, is trying to answer these questions. For years, they’ve been working for energy democracy—the idea that decisions about energy use should be made by those most affected by current policies and decisions. Over this summer and fall, the Union of Concerned Scientists teamed up with Soulardarity to provide data and modeling… to support their goal of achieving 100 percent clean and affordable energy owned by Highland Park community members.

Gracie Wooten, an energy justice advocate from Soulardarity and a long-time Highland Park local, joined me to explain how Highland Park can be a global example of energy democracy. Along with the Energy Analyst James Gignac from the Union of Concerned Scientists, we discussed new research and opportunities the two groups uncovered together.

Colleen: Gracie, James, welcome to the podcast.

James: Thanks for having us.

Gracie: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Colleen: So, your organization's Soulardarity and the Union of Concerned Scientists teamed up to work on an exciting clean energy project that use data to show how a community could achieve 100% of its energy demand with a combination of locally-owned clean energy resources, like energy efficiency, and solar power. So, Gracie, let's start with you. Tell me about your community, Highland Park, Michigan.

Gracie: Thank you very much. I love talking about Highland Park. Highland Park is an old, very old city, pretty much established by Henry Ford. It's home to the first automated assembly line, home to probably one of the first water systems that was built outside of Detroit. There are a lot of innovations that happened in Highland Park. But right now we're in a deindustrialized city, and our infrastructure is crumbling. We have a lot of poverty. In fact, Highland Park is rated at the 92% for environmental injustice, Our population below poverty is around 46%. At the height of the population in Highland Park, it was about 50,000, I would say in the '70s. But right now, we're actually down in population to around 9000 people.

Colleen: Wow, that's quite a decline.

Gracie: Yeah, it is. And the infrastructure, and the poverty rate has a lot to do with the burden that's put on the rest of us who are in the community. So we have probably around 2011, there was a settlement to forgive us $14 million, because we could not afford to pay for our electricity. So DTE, our supplier, took the lights, took the poles. So that meant that, you know, they had no intentions of bringing the lights back. It was a total repossession. And, our backs were against the wall. When you think about it, I mean, it's like, you know, being offered a plea deal, and you see no other way out. So, it wasn't something that the city wanted to do, but you face no other choice. So, the neighborhoods have been in the dark.

Colleen: Literally in the dark.

Gracie: In the dark.

Colleen: I've never heard of that being done before. I think you're right, by taking those polls out, It seems that they had no intention of trying to work with the community to get the lights back on.

Gracie: We had absolutely no input. It was done by a city administrator. The city residents, we didn't even know about it. DTE did not even talk to these residents about this.

Colleen: So was that the catalyst? I mean, is that how Soulardarity came into being?

Gracie: Yes, it is. Soulardarity actually tried to negotiate with the city to have solar lights installed. But that negotiation didn't work out. But, you know, we're interested in clean energy, we're interested in power without pollution, we're interested in not harming the environment any further. we have so much industrial waste leftover from the auto industry, and the soil is polluted. The housing stock is very old. So that means that we have lead lines, we're under an EPA mandate to replace all of the water mains. And, of course, the lead service lines, we were forced to connect with Detroit water system, because the governor refused to give us a part that we needed to fix our water plant. it's a caused a lot of problems because the connections really didn't work. So we have a lot of water leakage, a lot of water main breaks in the wintertime.

Colleen: So, it sounds like you've got multiple health issues really in the town. What is your vision for community-based clean energy future? What are you planning?

Gracie: A clean energy future for us, as I was saying, not only means, you know, doing no further harm to our environment, what it means is that we can have a 100% clean energy. DTE, when they took the lights from the community, they didn't explore any kind of alternatives which they could have. And DTE has not been reliable. You know, I listened in just last week on a TV debate in the Senate about two bills that people want to the Michigan Public Service Commission to adopt rules that would allow us to have community solar, and DTE and the other service provider in Michigan, Consumers Power, they kept saying how reliable they were, and we didn't need community solar because they were affordable as well as reliable. But in Highland Park, that hasn't been the story. And Highland Park DTE actually has a transmission center where they run power not only to power Highland Park, but they have...also, they run power for four other cities. Yet, we are always losing power. you have infrastructure that's not being taken care of. And then, you have rates that continue to go up. Highland Parkers are spending between 18% and 33% of our income, which is just on electricity utilities which is not affordable. You know, it said that 6% is affordable. So, you think about a population that has about 46% of the people living below the poverty level but spending an enormous amount of money on utilities. It's just not sustainable for our city. So, we have a vision for something different. We don't wanna, like I said, go back to an old way when we can see power without pollution. And we can be a leader in terms of showing other cities what's possible.

Colleen: And are this plan primarily based on bringing in solar?

Gracie: Not only solar, but we know that, in order to actually be 100% clean energy, and our housing stock being older, like my house is 100 years old. I know that what we said is that we know that we have to combine other things, in addition to solar to help us become 100% clean. So that means that we have to rely on, you know, have our homes retrofitted, they need to be energy efficient. And James could probably speak to this more, but this particular study, what it showed is that with some changes in the state of Michigan's policies, what we can have is not only solar, but with energy efficiency, it could increase the amount of homes that can actually have a solar on their rooftops.

Colleen: Right, let me toss it over to James. So before we dig into the science, how did you become involved with Soulardarity?

James: Well, back in 2019, we at the Union of Concerned Scientists did a local clean energy project with the community of East Boston, Massachusetts. And that was a successful project. And we wanted to work with other local communities interested in clean energy. And around that same time, a member of Soulardarity was serving on a advisory board for another one of our projects called Low Carbon Pathways. And so, we were able to make the connection of how UCS analysis could help Soulardarity provide some additional data and research to show how Soulardarity's vision of a 100% low locally-owned clean energy is possible and achievable. And show one way how it could be done.

Colleen: How did you decide exactly what you were going to look at?

James: Yeah, we started our analysis by identifying what the average annual electricity demand is for the residential and commercial sectors in Highland Park. And that figure is 86,200 megawatt-hours per year. And so what we started with is identifying the types of resources that could fulfill that demand. And one of the things that is important to Soulardarity and to Highland Park is to not use too much land for energy generation, because as Gracie was saying, there's, you know, multiple challenges in the community. And we wanted to preserve as much land as possible for other uses, like urban agriculture, recreation, and so forth. So, what we started with was energy efficiency and rooftop solar. So with energy efficiency, we're improving the existing buildings to use less power. Also, to be healthier and more comfortable for residents.

And we identified that up to 25% of the community's energy demand could be achieved through efficiency. And from there, rooftop solar, again, it's not using extra land, it's using the existing built urban environment to generate power. And it also directly benefits homeowners and business owners who install the solar.

And we use a software model called HOMER. And that stands for hybrid optimization of multiple energy resources.And what HOMER does is it analyzes hundreds of different configurations of solar and batteries for different building types and provides the cost and performance data for that. So, we did two scenarios, we did a reference scenario using current policies and programs. And then we did a policy scenario which has better solar policies, better compensation to customers. And what we found was pretty striking between the two scenarios. And under current policies, the payback period for solar is pretty long. For the sample home we tested, it was 15 years to pay back the investment from that solar versus our policy scenario with improved compensation policies, the payback period it gets progressively lower and as low as two years to pay back that investment.

So with better policies, it's much more attractive for property owners to install solar. And in our policy scenario, we also assume that more homes would be upgraded through energy efficiency to install solar in that allowed us to reach 30% of rooftop solar contributing to the overall goal versus the under current policies, we were at 13%. So, we were able to show just how big of a difference better solar policies can make for communities like Highland Park that want to reach 100% locally-owned clean energy.

Colleen: So do you essentially then have a blueprint more or less to work from?

James: This is one blueprint for how Highland Park specifically could pursue 100% clean energy. One thing that's important to note is that it could look different for other communities. You know, it depends on, again, what the preferences are of the community members and what technologies they are most interested in. And then also things like what types of buildings are in the community? What the solar production is? So, the approach and the methodology that we used in this analysis is applicable to other communities across the country, but the exact mix of resources that they might come up with could look different from this.

Colleen: Right. And I think you reallyhit on a really key element here, which is talking to the community to find out what their priorities are.

James: Right. And as Gracie spoke to, Highland Park is post-industrial, and there is quite a bit of vacant land. And so one temptation might be, well, let's just cover all of that with solar. But identifying other resources that can preserve options for future use of that land, including redevelopment, new businesses, that was important to the community.

Gracie: And I like to add one thing, too, before we started talking with the Union of Concerned Scientists, there had been some energy work going on in the community. There are actually two solar villages, there are two locations that have been trying to become totally energy efficient. Parker Village and Avalon Village. Both have a lot of new technology. So the fact that we were already interested in energy democracy really, which meant that, you know, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has the same values as Soulardarity.

Colleen: So what needs to happen in terms of connecting the rooftop solar to the grid? I'm assuming you have to connect it into the existing grid, and you're not creating like a microgrid.

James: Right. So for this analysis, we did not model Highland Park as being a microgrid or being separated from the larger electric grid. So Highland Park, although it would be generating power locally, it would still be sharing that with neighboring communities. The utility would still own the poles and the wires. what this analysis is about is empowering communities to be able to choose how their power is generated. And our policy recommendations in the analysis are focused on leveraging newer technologies that have come about in recent years to be much more cost-effective, like solar, like energy efficiency.

And that also has a significant benefit of keeping more of the community's wealth circulating locally, rather than extracting it out to pay the power company for large faraway power plants.

Gracie: Another thing is that since we have a lot of renters in Highland Park, I think it's up to about maybe 60% of Highland Park, that's actually renting. A lot of people lost their homes based on the water crisis that we had. And then they started renting their own homes, you know, which is just a crime, too, against the community. With changes in policy, renters would be able to actually take part in having community solar, because they could do it virtually. Plus, people like me who are waiting, you know, I would need to do a lot of energy efficiency before I could add solar. I could take advantage of participating in a community garden, virtually, while, my energy-efficient improvement's going on, you know, before I could actually have rooftop solar in an economical way. So it's really important, the changes that we need our state to adopt, they're important so that people who are lower income can actually take advantage of solar and clean energy.

Colleen: How quickly can you get policies in place? Or how difficult is it to do that?

James: Well, there's a couple significant categories of policies that we analyze in our Let Communities Choose report. And one of the biggest categories is that Michigan and several other states across the country as well, currently allowing the electric utilities to restrict or limit the ability of customers to own solar either on their rooftop or as Gracie was saying, through subscribing to larger community solar projects. So in our policy scenario that we analyzed using the HOMER model, we showed how requiring utilities to allow customers to use the full amount of their rooftops for solar power and then to subscribe to local community solar projects is really what's needed to help unlock the potential for a vision such as 100% local, clean energy. And the other significant category, the second, I would say, is increasing access to lower-cost financing. So while all of the technologies that we look at in this analysis, pay for themselves, over time, there's still a lot of upfront investment to pay for the equipment or to pay the workers to do the installations or the efficiency upgrades. And we know that's gonna require some significant investment. And we need to increase the accessibility and availability of lower-cost financing.

And so there's a couple of examples of that, one is the Michigan Green Bank, which is a public-private partnership, specifically to make loans and investments in clean energy, and they're able to do that at a lower cost. to offer better terms, lower interest rates. And another example of lower-cost financing is what's called On-Bill Financing. And that's where a utility or it could be the city of Highland Park finances, efficiency and solar projects. And then the customers pay back that investment through their energy bills or water bills, depending on the arrangement, while still saving money overall. So, lower-cost financing is a key part of making a vision like this affordable.

Colleen: What would you like to see in the next couple of years or give me your hopes for the next few years?

James: The state of Michigan legislature is considering a couple of policy changes, that would make a big difference and things that we talked about in our Let Communities Choose analysis. One is requiring utilities to offer the community solar subscriptions to customers, and also lifting or eliminating the current cap on the amount of distributed generation or customer-owned solar. So those are two policies that are under consideration now. And if changes were put into place, that would be a big step toward enabling communities like Highland Park to pursue greater amounts of local clean energy.

And then at the local level, we also discuss in our report, things that local governments can and should also be doing to help communities achieve clean energy vision. And so the city of Highland Park could do things such as enacting a comprehensive solar ordinance to help provide clarity on how the solar resources could be built in the community, and also establishing an overall goal of 100% and creating benchmarks along the way toward achieving that overall goal. those are a couple of examples, both at the state and local level of policy changes that could be pursued quickly and help put us on the path toward achieving a vision like this. And Gracie, do you wanna talk about the work that Soulardarity and others have been doing and will continue to do?

Gracie: Yes.

So since we've been so active in Highland Park, around solar and around sustainability, our city council at the last Council meeting, they passed a resolution to research. They want us as citizens to do the research and actually see if it would be feasible for the city to own the utility to have municipal utility and break away from DTE. And I said well, that's really a step forward. You know, that the city, they know that DTE has been so unreliable, and they've mistreated us so badly, that they are actually considering the possibility for something else.

Colleen: You're shaking things up there.

Gracie: Makes me feel good.

Colleen: I mean, you've done so much work already. There's a lot left to do. But this is a really exciting project. And I look forward to seeing how it unfolds. Gracie and James, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.

James: Thanks for having us.

Gracie: Thank you. Thank you. I really appreciate you.

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