Communities LEAP program aims to wean Highland Park off fossil fuels

Many Highland Park residents own houses that may be over one hundred years old and are often very energy-inefficient, so it’s very expensive to heat and run electricity.
Michelle Jones in Highland Park. Photo by Nick Hagen.

This story is part of Reporting From Where We Live, a Planet Detroit project designed to train community members to report on issues in their own neighborhoods.

Rafael Mojica thinks a lot about the cost of energy. As the program director for Soulardarity, a Highland Park nonprofit dedicated to building energy democracy formed in 2011, Mojica knows affordability is a major issue for city residents.

“Somewhere between 13-14% of the average household’s monthly income goes toward utilities, Mojica said. “That number is really atrocious because anything above 6% is considered to be in the territory of extreme energy burden.” 

That is a major problem in a city comprising mostly low-income, older residents and multi-family dwellings. Many Highland Park residents have lived in the city for decades and own houses that may be over one hundred years old. Those older homes are often very energy-inefficient, so it’s very expensive to heat and run electricity.

In a 2017 survey of 70 Highland Park households, the energy democracy nonprofit Soulardarity found that 45% had trouble paying gas and electric bills, 56%  had used utility assistance, and 25% experienced a gas or electric shutoff. Of those who experienced shut-offs, 68% happened in the winter months.

Another problem facing Highland Park is the quality of its electrical infrastructure – the city runs on an older 4.8-kilovolt grid when modern grids run on 13.2 kilovolts.  

Mojica said the older grid is less reliable and contributes to power outages. Some residents have suffered through outages lasting more than 72 hours in recent years, resulting in food loss, threatening the health of those who rely on power to charge motorized wheelchairs, and creating unsafe conditions in the summer that may cause heat exhaustion and dangerous cold in the winter.

One way Mojica and others are trying to help is through a US Department of Energy technical assistance program called Communities Local Energy Action Program (C-LEAP). 

Highland Park is one of only 24 cities – all of them low-income, energy-burdened communities – selected to participate and receive a C-LEAP technical assistance grant that aims to “assist community-led transitions to a clean energy economy, and to build a healthier, more equitable, and sustainable future.” The award was announced in March 2022 and will conclude at the end of 2023.

Community partners in the program include Soulardarity, Avalon Village. Parker Village, the City of Highland Park Water and Engineering Department, and the Highland Park Community Crisis Coalition.

C-LEAP will help Highland Park to “create community-wide action plans that reduce local air pollution, increase energy resilience, lower utility costs and energy burdens, and provide long-term jobs and economic opportunities.” 

The work includes an analysis of the local grid capacity and reliability, a regulatory and financial model analysis for creating a municipal street lighting program and distributed renewable energy and electrification, an analysis of residential building stock, and more. 

The final result will be an action plan to identify potential funding options and sources for prioritized projects. The total value of these services is estimated to be $400-$500k.

Juan Shannon, CEO of Parker Village, a ‘SMART’ neighborhood community resource hub focused on technology, renewable energy, media, and aquaculture, was part of the group that applied for C-LEAP to come to Highland Park. Although Shannon sees the benefits of C-LEAP, he also has some concerns. 

Shannon remains a bit skeptical. He said that technical assistance “often results in some analysis and have you gathering information, and then, at the end of the day, a report is generated. And a report generated is not boots on the ground solutions to anything.” 

He sees the C-LEAP process moving slowly but said it has provided some insight into opportunities for the city. He is hopeful for the future.

“The people involved in our Communities LEAP have been very adamant about finding resources for Highland Park,” he said.

Michelle Jones is one of Planet Detroit’s Neighborhood Reporters, in which residents report from the places where they live.


Our reporting 

runs deep.

Get the latest local enviro news in your inbox with Planet Detroit.

Scroll to Top