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A sole solar streetlight aims to brighten a community left in the dark

A solar-powered streetlight went up Tuesday in Highland Park, reversing the darkness that fell last year when DTE Energy Co. removed most of the streetlights in this city of 12,000 people.

As of Tuesday, he'd raised only about half the money needed through the website. But he was able to get the light installed ahead of schedule because of private donations made outside the Web campaign and by borrowing from family. 

To get the money, he offered a challenge that he would have the light up by Thanksgiving.

"I must have made 600 emails and phone calls," O'Neil said. "I didn't get unfriended by anyone, so I guess I did OK."

When fully charged, he said, the LED light can shine for six nights, helped by sensors that turn it on only in the dark.

The light is on Victor Street a block south of the original Ford Model T plant. 

The campaign doesn't end with the one light. The goal is to set up a nonprofit called the Highland Park Solar Streetlight Initiative that would fund at least 20 more solar-powered streetlights in the first year and eventually raise $1 million to pay for 200 lights in the city. Each light costs about $5,000 when campaign costs are excluded.

"We're setting up a modest business plan. If there's a lot of groundswell, there's no reason why there can't be more," said Jackson Koeppel, a project organizer who is helping O'Neil.

O'Neil, who also makes a living on the side as a roofer, doesn't mind getting his hands dirty and spent much of Tuesday in a crane installing the light, batteries and solar panel. Taking a break on the ground to grab some of his coffee, he pointed at the Model T plant and said it can be an inspiration for bringing new ideas to the town where he was born.

"We have to be self-sustaining. This is a prime example of how to do that," O'Neill said of the streetlight.

O'Neil is known to some for the Ferndale coffee shop A.J.'s Music Cafe — which he ran from 2007 through March of this year, when he closed because his lease was up for renewal and rates had gotten too high.

He continued one element of the cafe — its coffee — by launching A.J.'s CoffeeWorks this year, a new brand under his existing business entity, Soup For You LLC. 

He wants to play a role in Highland Park's revival. O'Neil temporarily bases his coffee business in the basement of St. Benedict Catholic Church in the city and plans to open a cafe in Highland Park in the next year or two. The coffee is roasted in Highland Park at Becharas Bros. Coffee Co., a 99-year-old large-volume roaster that also roasts beans for Big Boy Restaurants International LLC. The signature Detroit Bold blend is sold in area specialty shops such as Mootown Creamery in Eastern Market.

Last year, DTE removed 1,300 streetlights — poles included — as part of a settlement with Highland Park over $4 million in unpaid energy bills, said Scott Simons, DTE senior media relations specialist. DTE left 300 lights in place and installed 200 new ones in the city.

The poles were removed, as opposed to just turning off the lights, to prevent people from thinking the lights were inoperable and constantly calling the city and DTE to have them repaired, Simons said. Removal also prevents electrical accidents, he said.

Highland Park is currently up to date on its light bill, Simons said.

Former Mayor Martha Scott said streets now have lights at intersections only and none in between.

"People are fearful of going out, especially seniors," Scott said.

The new solar streetlight shines onto a nearby business, Motor City Classic Auto Sales LLC, a year-old used-car business that seeks out specific models for enthusiasts. Owner Andre Davis said he addressed the lack of street lighting by spending $1,200 to install lights all around the top of his building.

"We went to Home Depot and did it ourselves," Davis said.

Mark Hackshaw, president of the Highland Park Business Association, said that except for Woodward Avenue, where lights were not removed, the current lighting situation reminds him of rural areas, where streetlights also are at intersections only.

Hackshaw also is chairman of Highland Park's Tax Increment Finance Authority, which gave $1,500 to the Soulardarity campaign. The location of the first light, on Victor Street, is important because active businesses are there, he said. But he realizes a single light won't make a huge difference.

"People say to me, 'Mark, that's not going to be enough,' but that's not the purpose," Hackshaw said. "The purpose is to make sure it works, to evaluate the quality and see what happens." 

Also pointing toward the Model T plant, he said Highland Park is in the "shadows of Henry" Ford and is trying to think innovatively, like he did.

Holland-based Solar Street Lights USA LLC made the solar streetlight, and key components, such as the four 105-pound batteries, also were made in Michigan, said Craig Brumels, co-owner of the company.

One less obvious benefit of using solar streetlights is that when they fall during a storm, they don't bring the grid with them, said Carla Walker-Miller, president and CEO of Walker-Miller Energy Services LLC, a business in Detroit's TechTown that does energy use assessments. They won't cause outages and they're safer.

"When this light falls, there are no live wires," Walker-Miller said.

The total removal of Highland Park's old lights and poles makes the use of something different more likely, she said, because people won't look at the dead poles and think about fixing them before considering anything else.

Solar streetlights are much more expensive than regular streetlights, but the installation is less expensive because it does not require digging to make power line connections. The long-lasting LEDs cut down on maintenance costs, too, Walker-Miller said.

More cities in the South have installed solar streetlights, but generally, municipalities stick with whatever utilities offer, she said. Solar streetlights usually aren't in a utility's catalog.

Said Walker-Miller, "Utilities sell what they have."

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