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Seeking energy security from Michigan to Puerto Rico

This story was produced in partnership with Planet Detroit.

After Hurricane Maria left millions of Puerto Ricans without electricity in 2017, Casa Pueblo became an energy oasis for the small mountain town community of Adjuntas. 

The nonprofit is doing what some residents in Highland Park, Michigan, want to do — running an entire neighborhood on a solar-powered microgrid. Groups like Soulardarity and Parker Village in Highland Park want the city to be as resilient as Adjuntas the next time DTE loses power.

I visited Adjuntas in February to learn more, and then came back to Highland Park to face days of power outages after the Feb. 22 ice storm and the March 5 “thundersnow.” 

I wanted to know — can Highland Park follow Adjuntas’ lead?  

While there are substantial regulatory barriers currently in place in Michigan that prevent residents from implementing many of Adjuntas’ resiliency options — like community solar and microgrids — regulators and advocates are pushing to change that.

Casa Pueblo has added more than 350 solar energy projects in Adjuntas since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017. Credit: Casa Pueblo / Courtesy

Home to Puerto Rico

I’ve lived in Detroit since 1979 and Highland Park since 2000 but was born in Puerto Rico. And like so many in the diaspora who are no longer living there or have never lived on la isla, I still call Puerto Rico home.

When I visited in February, five years after Hurricane Maria decimated the island’s power grid, I was struck by the many similar challenges facing my birth home and my adopted one. 

Adjuntas has approximately 18,000 residents, and Highland Park has about 9,000. Both communities have a high percentage of low-income residents. And both have an industrial past.  Highland Park was founded by Henry Ford and is known as the “birthplace of mass production.” Adjuntas was once nearly home to a major mining operation — opponents founded Casa Pueblo in 1980 and fought for 15 years to stop the mining industry and preserve the area’s forest.

Both Michigan and Puerto Rico are increasingly plagued by severe weather worsened by climate change. That comes in the form of more frequent and severe hurricanes in Puerto Rico. We see more frequent and severe thunderstorms — and, more recently, thundersnow — and ice storms in Michigan. 

And Highland Park and Adjuntas have old, outdated electric infrastructure that is highly vulnerable to severe weather. 

The power grid in Puerto Rico has been unstable for decades. When there is a major hurricane, the entire energy system in Puerto Rico collapses for weeks, and sometimes months. Residents have dealt with the power being out for seemingly no reason at all, and a revolving door of power companies has not been able to fix the issues despite receiving millions of dollars to do so.

Metro Detroit’s power grid is also aging and unstable, as evidenced by the recent outages suffered by more than 450,000 customers in late February and early March.

Both places are serviced by private power companies demanding ever higher rates while residents continue to receive poor service and continuous blackouts and shutoffs.

People of color and those with less income are disproportionately impacted in Adjuntas and Highland Park. 

But also, in both places, residents have joined forces to demand a better future.

Visions of community resilience

In Adjuntas, with help from local organizations, foundations, and private donations, the nonprofit Casa Pueblo has added more than 350 solar energy projects since Hurricane Maria. 

Over 100 homes, grocery and hardware stores, an elementary school, a couple of restaurants, a barbershop, a home for the elderly, the fire station, and the place people go for medical emergencies are all equipped with solar power in this small municipality.

Casa Pueblo shares a mission with Soulardarity. Both organizations are fighting for energy security, democracy, and resilience — ensuring the community has access to a reliable and affordable supply of energy, a say in how those energy resources are managed, and contingency measures in place in the event of a power failure.

“Everyone should have access to power, not just those who can afford it,” said Casa Pueblo Executive Director Dr. Arturo Massol-Deyá, whose parents co-founded the organization.

On March 18, Adjuntas will host “Marcha del Sol” — March of the Sun — to celebrate the installation of its first urban solar microgrid.

The project includes interconnecting solar power between several businesses, including a church, pharmacy, hardware store, optician, bakery, furniture store, and pizzeria. When the power goes out, these locations can stay open for business. The owners have agreed to provide services to residents needing medicine and refrigeration or run medical machines and charge cell phones when power outages happen. 

The project is spearheaded by Casa Pueblo with support from the Honnold Foundation, Rivian, Let’s Share the Sun Foundation, and the Adjuntas Solar Energy Community Association. 

In Highland Park, Soulardarity has laid out visions and studies for similar projects — demonstrating how the city might power itself on 100% renewable energy and construct local smart grids to build resilience. 

But unlike in Adjuntas, these plans have not come to fruition. According to Julie Baldwin, director of the Michigan Public Service Commission’s Energy Operations Division, one reason is that non-utility microgrids are not currently provided for under the state’s current legal and regulatory framework. An entity providing retail electric service to a customer must either be a utility or a registered alternative energysupplier under Public Act 3 of 1939.

However, Baldwin noted, the Public Service Commission is studying the issue and has asked for public comment. A 2021 commission report discusses the existing barriers and possible solutions for making microgrids possible in Michigan.

Soulardarity Executive Director Shimekia Nichols said enabling microgrids would empower the community to provide for itself.

“We’re not asking DTE to give us money. We’re not asking for some really big philanthropic or development push to save us,” she said on a recent podcast. “All we want is the freedom, space, and deliberation to galvanize with our people and implement solutions … for our communities’ safety and health.”

Progress, despite regulatory hurdles

While microgrids may not yet be possible under Michigan’s current regulatory framework, Soulardarity is pushing ahead with projects designed to increase local renewable energy and build resiliency.

This year, the nonprofit plans to install ten solar-powered streetlights with free WiFi in Highland Park, according to program coordinator Rafael Mojica.

And the organization continues to advocate for community solar — off-site installations that individuals can subscribe to and receive a bill credit from their electric utility. This makes it possible for people who can’t afford solar panels or don’t have roofs to put them on to enjoy the benefits of solar energy.

Like microgrids, community solar is also not provided for under Michigan law. However, Michigan legislators recently introduced a bipartisan bill package enabling community solar in Michigan.

“The biggest similarity between Soulardarity and the work of Casa Pueblo is our advocacy for community solar,” Mojica told Planet Detroit. “While understanding that it is good when individual homeowners use their resources to install rooftop solar panels, it is important that the right to solar energy should not be limited to those who can afford it, but to the community as a whole. And more importantly that these solar installations are owned by the people and not by an investor-owned utility.” 

Soulardarity is also working on expanding access to residential rooftop solar, Mojica said.  

The group Grow Solar Highland Park-Detroit is working to connect residents to qualified installers and helping them navigate financial opportunities to drive down the cost of materials and installation, such as tax credits and financing. They’re also working on bulk purchases to reduce costs.

“Even though we are not donating entire projects like Casa Pueblo, we are working towards normalization and building demand for cleaner, cheaper, and more accessible solar energy,” Mojica said. “Hopefully, we will be financially in a position further down the road to fund individual home installs, like Casa Pueblo is doing.”

Hope for a better future

A solar light installed by Soulardarity in Highland Park, Michigan.
A solar light installed by Soulardarity in Highland Park, Michigan. Credit: Angela Lugo-Thomas / Planet Detroit

Community activists founded Soulardarity after DTE Energy repossessed its streetlights in Highland Park in 2011, in a settlement over the city’s $4 million debt to the utility. Slowly, DTE replaced the steel posts with a few wooden light poles, but only in some places. The replacement streetlights were not as bright as those that were there previously. Highland Park is still mostly in the dark. 

Soulardarity soon started envisioning Highland Park as a sustainable model city. To date, the group has installed 17 solar-powered street lights in Highland Park. Previous city administrations were not receptive to installing solar street lights across the entire city.

So far, Soulardarity has only been able to put them on privately owned parcels. They fundraise to cover material and installation costs.

The fight for who owns and pays for power continues in Michigan and Puerto Rico. 

However, there seems to be hope and some movement toward a better future. Puerto Rico announced that by 2050, it hopes to generate 100% renewable energy. The Michigan Healthy Climate Plan draft aims for 50% renewable energy by 2030, closing all coal plants by 2035.

What would that look like in Highland Park?

I envision energy democracy and resilience — solar panels with backup battery systems on every structure in addition to solar microgrids, and solar manufacturing facilities to train installers and repairers. 

In the meantime, smaller and less expensive portable battery boxes with portable folding solar panels could power some household appliances and charge cellphones in the event of power outages until households like mine can afford to get a solar array installed.

I look forward to the day when Highland Park residents and other DTE customers will no longer suffer from anxiety or stress when the power goes out and when paying their utility bills. I believe the city of Highland Park, in partnership with Soulardarity and others, can once again make Highland Park a model city that other communities will emulate and learn from. 

Just like Casa Pueblo has done for Adjuntas in Puerto Rico.

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