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Solar-power light comes to Highland Park

On Nov. 20, a collaborative called “Soulardarity” installed a solar-powered streetlight — the first of a planned 200 in the next five years — on Victor Street in Highland Park. It became officially operational on Thanksgiving Day.
The light was installed in front of Motor City Classic Auto Sales L.L.C., across Victor from the abandoned Ford Highland Park Assembly Plant.

Project manager AJ O’Neil said Highland Park is the birthplace of the community economy. “I’ve always maintained that we live in a crosscheck economy where, like Henry Ford, you pay people a good wage, they become your producers and your customers,” O’Neil said. “That’s a market economy. That got lost in this reevaluation of an investor’s mentality, a long time ago. A couple of generations ago. I think it’s just natural that I came from Ferndale into Highland Park which, incidentally, is my birthplace.”

O’Neil owned AJ’s Café in Ferndale, but didn’t re-sign the lease, saying it was cost-prohibitive. He currently owns AJ’s Coffee Works in Hazel Park and works as a roofer throughout metro Detroit. He said that just as Henry Ford’s moving assembly line helped change the world, solar street lights will help reinvigorate the economy.

Private funds helped pay for the cost of the light and its associated components. He said the name “Soulardarity” has a three-pronged meaning, referencing the soul of the community, solar power (which he described as “the new energy”) and solidarity with the community. “This will be 100 percent off-the-grid, utility bill-free,” O’Neil said of the light. Craig Brumels, the technician who helped install the light, is the engineer with Holland, Michigan-based Solar Street Lights USA. It was overcast as the light was being installed the morning of Nov. 20. Brumels said that even on such days, the light would still harvest energy. He also said the 45 watt LED lamp has a wide light distribution area.

The battery box contains four six-volt batteries which are 335 amps each.“They power the light,” he said. “So the light operates at 24 volts and the charge controller turns the light on and off.” The solar panels charge the batteries, and that each solar street light would be stand-alone, “it’s own little solar system.”

He also said a lot of Solar Street Lights USA’s products are Michigan-based.“So, when we sell a light it puts people to work,” he said. O’Neil noted that solar street lighting brings the community back, describing block associations starting battery replacement funds and other community investment endeavors.

He added that next year is the 100th anniversary of that assembly line. “We want to be here, primed and ready to make a bold statement that says ‘this is the next 100 years,’” O’Neil said.

O’Neil said there wasn’t any deliberate symbolism in installing the light across the street from the Highland Park Assembly Plant. He also pointed out that the second solar streetlight will be installed on Highland Street, in a residential area.

According to O’Neil, it’s hard to say how many jobs would be created by the installation of solar street lights, but asked what the “reverberating effect” of one job is. He also said Woodward and Wall Street need to work better with each other, saying it’s in their mutual best interests.Again for one metro Detroit community is a gain for another; likewise for losses.

Mark Hackshaw, chairman of Highland Park’s Tax Increment Finance Authority, and president of the Highland Park Business Association, said the area where the street light was being installed is part of the TIFA district.

He also said TIFA had been interested in an initiative to get lights on Victor since the DTE lights were removed.
Resident Ricardo Byers called the project wonderful, saying it’s helping the community and that everybody’s going to love it. He works for Amazon Tree Manufacturing, which supplied to hoist O’Neil and Brumels used to install the solar panel and the light. He’d like to see solar street lights installed on all the side streets. Neighborhoods are now lit by the moon and porch lights on individual homes.

Andre Foster, co-owner of Motor City Classic, described himself as blessed to have the light installed outside his business, saying it will give customers a sense of comfort. He said the only streetlights are on the corners.
Motor City Classic co-owner Andre Davis said the fact that this new light is self-sufficient can serve as a beacon for what the people of Highland Park can do for their future.

Davis believes having solar-powered street lights in Highland Park will attract more businesses. Carla Walker-Miller of Walker-Miller Energy Services, based in Tech Town, said her company is a distributor for the integrated street lighting products. They provide the pole, the battery box, the solar panel and the LED lighting. Walker-Miller noted t hat there’s no maintenance required with LED lighting or the solar panels. 

She also said her company, which does energy efficiency and alternative and renewable energy projects all over the state, wants to drive energy efficient behavior, period. She pointed out that if we can learn to live more efficiently, then in cities like Highland Park, where the income is lower, fewer expenses would go toward things like electric, water and gas bills. She also said each solar street light — and all its various components — would cost about $5,500, but noted that there would be no maintenance and no utility bill.She added that the cost will come down substantially as these become more standard.

“The first of everything is more expensive,” she said. She described the light on Victor as the “flagship.”
Gerrajh Surles, director of public works with the City of Highland Park, said this project means the start of a new day. “This is the first time we actually have a physical representation of us moving forward, being more energy efficient as a city,” he said. Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, general counsel of the Detroit Branch NAACP, and close friend of O’Neil, said the street lighting campaign is about the essence of safety.

Hollowell also said Highland Park is a metaphor for the comeback of every urban area.

“So I love the fact that he (O’Neil) has got this energy and is helping to pull the community together,” Hollowell said.

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