SolarYpsi recently logged over 100 solar power installations on its website, and founder Dave Strenski has already set his next milestone goal: getting solar panels onto the roofs of 100 low-income homes in Ypsilanti.
Launched in 2005, SolarYpsi is a grassroots effort to encourage local solar projects. Strenski says it's not incorporated and is "just a website and group of friends." But the group has been influential in making Ypsi a major player in terms of solar power production per capita. Solar installations in the Ypsilanti area produce 66 watts per person, rivaling much bigger cities like San Francisco. Strenski says it's easier for a smaller city to show impressive levels of solar power produced because "a couple of big projects really bump the numbers up."
SolarYpsi's website tracks both solar installations in Ypsi, as well as installations that SolarYpsi members have been involved in nationwide. When researching permit requests to determine if the website was missing any solar installations in Ypsi, Strenski found 16 he didn't already know about. That brought his total to 116, including 44 beyond Ypsi's city limits.
Strenski reached out to the owners of all 16 installations so he could fill in their details on his map. Though Strenski is known locally as "the solar guy," and many of the homeowners and business owners who put up solar installations were inspired by his talks and efforts around the community, some of them were just inspired by a neighbor or chose to do it on their own without knowing anything about SolarYpsi.Dave Strenski and Jay Nugent in front of a solar installation on Nugent's Ypsilanti Township home.
"That's the real success here. People are just doing it, and I'm not even involved," Strenski says.
The organization had hoped to reach 1,000 solar roofs in Ypsi by 2020. Strenski describes that as "a good goal" urged on him by Environment Michigan, an organization advocating for Michigan utility companies to increase the percentage of power created by renewable resources. A drive to create a constitutional amendment toward that goal failed, so Environment Michigan decided to go for a "bottom up" approach rather than a "top down" approach. In 2013 they asked Strenski to commit to 2,000 solar roofs in the Ypsilanti area by 2020, but Strenski thought 1,000 was more realistic.
Despite the fact that he didn't hit the goal, he did convince Ypsilanti City Council to pass a resolution supporting solar power in Ypsilanti. And Environment America dedicated a paragraph to Ypsilanti as an up-and-coming "solar star" in its annual "Shining Cities" report in 2018.
The city has been a big supporter of solar power beyond simply passing a resolution. Solar panels adorn the roof of the city's fire station and its Department of Public Works (DPW) carport. Strenski says the panels were installed mostly with free volunteer labor and the fire station staff are "clearly saving money that can be put to better use" than paying utility bills.
Rob Rafson, president of Muskegon-based Chart House Energy, has been involved in the fire station project and several others around Ypsilanti. Homeowners can reap tax benefits from solar projects, but nonprofits and governmental agencies don't pay taxes and can't take advantage of those tax credits.
That's where Rafson comes in. In the case of the fire station, Chart House Energy owns the equipment, reaps the tax benefits, and then leases the equipment to the city. After six years have elapsed, the city will buy the equipment from Chart House and become the owner of the solar array.
Rafson also helped with a solar project at Ypsilanti's New Parkridge affordable housing complex as part of the "Solar in Your Community Challenge" project, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. That project not only put a solar array on the community center building but trained four local people in solar installation, upgrading their skills and making them more employable.
Another four community members were trained for the DPW installation, and Rafson says he knows at least three of the eight went on to get jobs in the solar construction industry.
Steve Pierce, an Ypsilanti resident and owner of The Ypsilanti Performance Space (The YPSI), designed and maintains the website for SolarYpsi. Pierce says he became interested in putting solar panels on his own home and on The YPSI after helping Strenski with a project during Ypsilanti's Heritage Festival in 2012, installing a 6,000-watt solar panel array that produced about 3% of the festival's power that year. Steve Pierce stands in front of the solar roof at The YPSI.
"I listened to Dave doing his presentation and I started talking to people about solar too," Pierce says. "At the end of three days, I asked myself, 'Why am I not doing this at my house?'"
Pierce had to contend with the city's historic district commission, whose members were "not initially excited about it," Pierce says.
"But Dave is unrelenting and positive and showed why it would be good for historic preservation. It helps people stay in their homes and businesses stay in business," he says. "Ypsilanti was the first community to create a solar policy for historic districts, and that's now being used as a model in a bunch of historic districts across the state."
The panels on Pierce's home only produce about 40% of the electricity needed to power a 6,000-square-foot home, but the array at The YPSI has reduced his monthly electric bill from just under $600 per month to about $15 per month. He says having to keep the performance space closed during the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on his bottom line, but not having to pay hundreds of dollars in utility bills every month while the space is empty has been helpful.
Strenski's next big vision is to get solar panels on the roofs of 100 Ypsilanti homes housing low-income families. He says he overlaid a map showing both a state-designated neighborhood enterprise zone (NEZ) and a federally-designated opportunity zone. He located about 257 homes that were owner-occupied and in both zones, which means "they have three different tax credits going," Strenski says.
Using maps and solar score calculators, he has identified what he thinks are the best 100 homes for the project. He'll need about $10,000 per project, which adds up to $1 million, but he thinks if he can convince the right contractor to do several identical installations on the same street in a short amount of time, then "the tremendous economies of scale could … get the price way down."Dave Strenski in front of a solar installation at Second Baptist Church in Ypsilanti.
Strenski is seeking grants or private donors who may want to sponsor the project, but hasn't had much luck so far. Since SolarYpsi isn't a formally incorporated business or nonprofit, city government would likely have to secure project funds.
"If every community had a Dave Strenski, we'd be doing so much better both in this state and nationally," Rafson says. He adds that the city government's support has also been instrumental in Ypsi's role as a solar city.
"Other cities make the homeowner or business owner jump through hoops to get permits, partly because I think they don't understand solar as well as they do other types of construction," Rafson says. "One thing Ypsi city government has done is actively support solar both in the economic sense and also in permitting, making it actively easy to go and install solar."
Strenski will be discussing solar power as part of the National Solar Tour this Saturday, Oct. 3, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse deck. Residents can grab a map for a self-guided solar tour at the event.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.