solar panels
O’Shea Solar Park in Detroit. (DTE Energy photo)

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan wants to power city operations with energy generated in solar parks in Detroit neighborhoods.

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This story also appeared on Planet Detroit.

The administration plans to solicit private solar developers to power city buildings – police and fire stations, recreation centers, and Detroit Department of Transportation stations. The city currently pays DTE Energy about $9 million per year for electricity to power these buildings. 

As part of the program, the city proposes paying $25,000 per acre in community benefits to neighborhoods that host solar projects. The value of a 10-acre project could net $250,000 in benefits; the value of a 50-acre could net $1.25 million. 

The specific benefits would be decided upon by the hosting community – things like neighborhood beautification, home repair, energy efficiency, or solar panels to power homes.

In a presentation at Second Ebenezer church in District 3 on Wednesday evening, the mayor pointed to initiatives in Chicago and Cincinnati to build solar farms to power city government operations on farmland miles outside of urban areas. 

Duggan said Detroit is open to that idea but wants to explore using the city’s vast swaths of vacant land to generate solar power, paired with goals to reduce blighted land that is often a target for illegal dumping while providing community benefits to neighbors. The city aims to build 250 acres of solar panels as quickly as possible to generate 60,000 megawatts to power city buildings.

“Could we build on stretches of blighted land in the city of Detroit? Is that something that neighborhoods here would like to consider?” Duggan said. “So you could have a neighborhood that’s been targeted for dumping. And if they chose, they could instead potentially have a fenced-in solar panel field.”

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Scenario presented to the public.

According to the city’s Director of Sustainability, Jack Akinlosotu, the project is on an expedited timeline.

“We’re moving as quickly as possible,” he said. “It’s a really high priority for the mayor’s office.”

The city will ask solar developers to propose projects on land owned by Detroit, either within the city limits or in rural outstate areas. In either case, the city would own the land and lease it to the solar developer, who would then enter into a contract to provide solar power for city operations.

Details on how the city would be credited for the power are yet to be determined. Akinlosotu anticipates the city’s request for information (RFI)process will help identify cost-effective alternatives. He said the city plans to leverage credits and incentives under the federal Inflation Reduction Act to help offset costs for the panels.

“Basically, it’s an information-gathering opportunity for us,” Akinlosotu said. 

He added that while it might be more straightforward for the city to enter into a power purchase agreement with DTE Energy, city officials wanted to identify opportunities to garner community benefits.

“We can do a power purchase agreement. We’re going to be deploying solar for our municipal operations regardless, but this is an opportunity,” he said. “There are big swaths of land in Detroit that our Department of Neighborhoods gets many complaints about. So we wanted to see if there’s interest in people using the land that might be dumped on or blighted for solar instead.”

The leading cities in solar development in the United States include sunny locales like Honolulu, Las Vegas, San Diego, Albuquerque, and San Jose. But midwest states are catching up – Ohio and Indiana are becoming national leaders in solar production, with Ohio third and Indiana fifth. It’s part of a recent boom in solar production across the Midwest. Across both states, 23 projects in the works would generate over 300 megawatts of power when completed. Detroit currently generates about 6 megawatts of solar energy.

But solar siting is increasingly a contentious issue. Rural Michigan has recently seen vocal opposition to solar farms. Earlier this spring, opponents attempted to push a statewide ban on solar projects. Similar opposition has cropped up across the country. 

So far, large-scale solar in urban areas is less common. It can present challenges like zoning conflicts, glare, and view obstruction. One recent study points to  significant untapped potential presented by urban land for solar development.

Neighborhood associations, block clubs, or groups of at least five residents where formal associations or clubs don’t exist will be eligible to apply for the city’s solar farm program. They should submit their information via a form on the city’s sustainability website. Applicants must be located within 2,000 feet of a proposed solar park and must include defined boundaries between 10 and 50 acres, and they can propose closing city streets to create a solar park. 

Erinn Harris, the city’s deputy director for the Department of Neighborhoods, said that the project aims to kill two birds – blight and sustainability – with one stone.

“We get a lot of complaints on a regular basis about blighted lots and vacant lots and illegal dumping,” she said. “One of the benefits to the neighbors will be getting rid of this blight on these vacant lots and in solar farms in their neighborhoods. And by doing that, they not only help us eliminate the blight, but it also helps the city to reduce its carbon footprint.”

The city is making community consultants available to help neighborhood groups develop proposals. Briana Dubose, Director of Strategic Community Initiatives at EcoWorks, Donele Wilkins, CEO of Green Door Initiative, and Brandy Brown, Chief Innovation Officer of Walker-Miller Associates, presented their organizations’ work at the meeting. Other groups that may assist include Hope Village, We Want Green Too, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, Michigan Interfaith Power and Light, and potentially others. Dubose said the consultants would have the opportunity to help communities frame their community benefit requests. Akinlosutu said the consultants would be compensated but declined to specify who would pay them or how much.

“Our hope is to help [community members] maximize their opportunities for community benefits,” Dubose told Planet Detroit. “Since most of us work in this field, we can help educate and inform and be a resource for guidance.”

Duggan emphasized that the city will not push this project onto neighborhoods, and would only work with places where it had been invited in.

“I want to leave the decision to the community. I want each community to decide for itself. Is this right for us? And if it’s not, we’re not going to pursue it,” he said.

Akinlosotu added that the city is intent on allowing residents to drive the process but acknowledged it will be a tall order for residents to organize and demonstrate community support.

“There’s gonna be a lot of work that needs to be done in order to make sure that ‘hey, this is something that people want,’” he said. “It could be something as in the way of like signatures for community support; it could be proof that they’ve done the door knocking; I think one thing that’s for sure is, you know, if it’s like 50/50 if there’s a lot of opposite opposition then I don’t think the city will want to do it.” 

Once gaining neighborhood support, Duggan said the city may need to take land through condemnation, outlining a plan to compensate renters with 18 months of free rent, landlords and vacant lot owners with fair market value, and owner-occupied homeowners with double the market value.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan giving presentation
Mayor Mike Duggan presents his proposal for neighborhood solar farms at Second Ebenezer Church in Detroit’s District 3 on Wednesday, June 28, 2023. (Photos by Angela Lugo-Thomas)

“You’re going to have to show us that you’re talking to the folks there,” Duggan said. “I’m not telling you that they have 100% support, and one person can block you. But I want to know their is substantial support in the area that you’re proposing.”

Applications should not include more than two occupied structures, Duggan said.

“I really do not want to be in a situation where we are pushing people out of their homes that don’t want to go,” Duggan said. “So if you’re gonna propose an area, we want stretches where they don’t have more than one or two occupied houses.”

Duggan also outlined his administration’s environmental justice record, noting the city’s 2016 sustainability action agenda, work to build bioswales for stormwater retention in Rouge Park, blocking Marathon’s attempt in 2016 to increase pollution in southwest Detroit, stopping an asphalt plant in Core City last year and shutting down and demolishing the Detroit incinerator. He also touted efforts to electrify the city’s fleet and build charging stations across the city.

The proposal would build on the O’Shea solar park on the city’s west side. The project was constructed in 2016 and owned and operated by DTE. The 2-megawatt, 7,000-panel project came online in 2017 and generates enough energy for 450 homes. The city received a one-time, $25,000 lease payment for 20 years, tax revenue from DTE, and an agreement that DTE will maintain some of the city property over the lifespan of the lease, an estimated $400,000 benefit.

That project came under criticism from some advocates for benefiting DTE Energy more than community members. Akinlosotu said the mayor’s community-driven approach is in part to learn from mistakes made in that project. “We have the opportunity to kind of expand on what we did there and do it better this time,” he said. 

Jefferson Chalmers resident Tammy Black leads the solar-powered Manistique Community Treehouse project as well as a project to power 25 homes in the neighborhood with solar power. She expressed interest in the mayor’s plan.

“I’ll be talking to the communities I represent to see how they feel about the proposal,” she told Planet Detroit.

But Farwell resident Vanessa Peake, who has lived in her Detroit neighborhood for 15 years and described herself as an “environmental person,” is skeptical of the project’s aim to connect solar with blight reduction.

”Sustainability – we need it but can’t couple it with trash. We’ve gotta move that out of the picture,” Parks told Planet Detroit. “I like the concept. But I don’t like what you put on it. I don’t like it coupled with blight.

“I’m not feeling it. It is a band-aid approach,” she added. “This ain’t gonna work because we’re not tackling the issue – we’re not tackling the why.”

Proposals from neighborhood groups and solar developers are due Oct. 2.

Angela Lugo-Thomas contributed reporting to this story.

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