Building energy democracy

Bridgett Townsend and Jackson Koeppel

In 2011, the city of Highland Park’s streetlights were repossessed by DTE Energy and residents were left in the dark. This was not simply an inability to pay the bill, it was the result of archaic legislation designed to serve profits, not people. This also occurred in a city where the active destruction of school systems and emergency management have aggressively stripped citizens of their democratic rights and control over basic services, including public lighting.

Contrary to a recent coverage of Soulardarity, we are appalled by these assaults on local government, and the harm they cause in our communities. We work to ensure that community members have a say in the energy decisions that impact their lives, that all communities should have healthy, safe, and affordable power, and that human lives matter. We exist to create an energy democracy.

Michigan energy companies have raised costs on homes and businesses, and even attempted to stop cities from saving energy and money by raising the operating rates for LED streetlights. Their priorities are clear and they are not alone. Therefore, we cannot lay the blame for the repossession of streetlights in Highland Park at the city’s feet.

We don’t, however, give those in government a pass. We hold them accountable. True government is a tool, a reflection of the will of the people, an institution through which that will is brought to life. Despite the attempts to strip people of that right through emergency management, communities continue to advocate, resist, and engage in shaping our collective future.

When Highland Park’s streetlights were removed, we came together. In a few years, we raised funds for and installed six solar streetlights on Highland Park streets, and organized a bulk purchasing program that bought almost 50 home and alley solar lights. Highland Parkers did not sit in the dark, waiting for better things to come. We built better things. But to be clear: six streetlights do not come near to replacing the 1,100 that were taken. Our years of work and extensive feasibility research have made it clear: To truly restore light to the city in a way that is equitable to all residents, we need our city government.

We are committed to working with the city of Highland Park to create and fund a plan to make the city of Highland Park the first city in this country to adopt solar street lighting technology full-scale, with integrated social services of affordable internet and improved emergency response. We believe in this vision, and the power of grassroots leadership to realize it. Some may find this line of thinking idealistic, perhaps unimaginable. But our work is precisely that — to take the unimaginable and find the path to making it real — and it’s working.

Michigan stands at a crossroads. Coal is on the way out, and investor-owned utilities are fighting hard to replace it with pipelines and natural gas plants. This will only lead to more monopoly, poverty, pollution, grid instability, and climate change. A better path is a world where communities control their futures using sun and wind for energy.

Bridgett Townsend is the board president and Jackson Koeppel is executive director of Soulardarity.