Ypsi seeks to expand access to solar power through Department of Energy challenge

Ypsilanti already produces an impressive 50 watts of solar power per capita, and it's aiming to continue demonstrating national leadership as it vies for U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) funding to expand renewable energy in the city.


The city is participating in the SunShot Prize: Solar in Your Community Challenge, a $5 million DOE competition aiming to make solar electricity more accessible to low- and moderate-income households, as well as municipalities and nonprofit organizations. About 170 teams across the U.S. are participating in the challenge by installing photovoltaic (PV) systems that collectively produce between 25 and 5,000 kilowatts.


The city of Ypsilanti has partnered with grassroots effort SolarYpsi and independent power producer Chart House Energy to create a local team named Solar Destination Ypsilanti. The team has already received $30,000 in seed money to support technical assistance resources and mentoring. It has the chance to win an additional $500,000 if it can successfully demonstrate a reproducible, scalable model for low-income solar. The challenge's 18-month performance period began last May and will end in October. The winning teams are expected to be announced next January.


If Solar Destination Ypsilanti wins the Solar in Your Community Challenge, SolarYpsi founder Dave Strenski would like to see the city use the $500,000 grand prize to create a solar power rebate program. If the city offered $5,000 to any resident who pulls a permit for a PV system installation, the prize money could help offset the cost of 100 residential installations. That way, the resident, the city, and the federal tax credit would each cover about a third of the cost of the system. Strenski says he thinks $5,000 is a more realistic price for residents than $15,000.


For the challenge, the Solar Destination Ypsilanti team plans to install three PV systems at the New Parkridge housing development, at the Ypsilanti Department of Public Services, and at the site of the old landfill near exit 183 on I-94. A large component of the effort will involve training local residents to create a pool of experienced workers who can be hired for future solar power projects in Ypsi. Chart House Energy founder and president Rob Rafson is leading the training and installation process at all three sites.


"These are not just short-term construction jobs," Rafson says. "They are good-paying short-term construction jobs and they lead to long-term maintenance jobs and potentially lead to long-term careers in different types of construction. That’s where you have the lasting impact."


Earlier in March, four residents of New Parkridge were selected to undergo training and install a PV system on the Amos Washington Building, 831 Hilyard Robinson Way, which serves as the affordable housing development's supportive services center. In addition to safety and educational training, the process also included job expectations and soft skills training so the residents are aware of how the skills they obtained can translate into a feasible career for them.


LeRoy Fedorko was one of the residents who received training and worked on the New Parkridge installation. He wanted to help with the project because he thought it was a good opportunity to pick up new skills while helping his community. He hopes the experience will lead to other opportunities in skilled trades. He's interested in continuing to explore solar power, as well as training to become an electrician, because he's a hands-on person who loves learning new things.


"It’s good for the environment and the people involved because they’re able to learn something about a trade that they never knew before," Fedorko says. "It’s a great experience overall for somebody to go through and learn something new and have the opportunity to learn something that can lead them to a job opportunity."


The installation at the Department of Public Services will add another 20 kilowatts to an existing system on the department’s carport. Rafson plans to hire four new people to undergo training and install the system. He hopes the four people who worked on the New Parkridge installation will be available to help train the four new people. The installation is expected to happen later this month.


The landfill installation is contingent on negotiations between Chart House Energy and DTE Energy. SolarYpsi tried to get DTE to do a PV system installation at the landfill site about five years ago, but the project didn't work out. DTE is interested in doing it now because Chart House Energy is able to help it monetize a renewable energy tax credit. Rafson would like all eight of the trainees to be involved in the landfill installation, which would likely happen sometime this summer.


The ultimate hope is that contractors who are selected to lead solar power system installations in Ypsi will hire the local laborers who have already been trained and have experience doing these kinds of installations. Rafson has already reached out to DTE to see if it has any opportunities for the four people who worked on the New Parkridge installation. He plans to reach out to other local solar developers to see if they’re in need of experienced laborers as well.




SolarYpsi is a grassroots project launched in 2005 in an effort to foster a more sustainable Ypsi through renewable energy sources. The loose group of participants, led by Strenski, has helped install more than three dozen solar power systems in the past 12 years. Strenski estimates the group has brought in at least $200,000 in grants and donations for the installations. Since SolarYpsi isn’t incorporated, it can’t directly accept funding for the installations, but Strenski acts as the catalyst for connecting donors with nonprofits interested in receiving a free solar power system and then helps provide contractors and volunteers to install it.


Strenski has helped many people across the country who have reached out to him about installing solar power systems. SolarYpsi has been involved in the installation of at least 38 systems in Ypsi, three systems in Ann Arbor, three systems in Detroit, and 28 systems in other cities. Strenski has given more than 200 presentations on solar power and met one-on-one with more than 5,000 people since the inception of SolarYpsi.


SolarYpsi is aiming to help install solar panels on 1,000 roofs in Ypsi by 2020. That goal is backed by a resolution from the city of Ypsilanti. Strenski's ultimate dream is to make Ypsi a "solar destination" where people from across the U.S. will come to learn about solar power and see hundreds of examples of solar throughout the city. Strenski believes solar power can create jobs, help the economy, save the environment, and be a topic of positive news in Ypsi.


In 2015, SolarYpsi used a $93,000 donation to install solar power systems on six local nonprofits. The anonymous donor selected Parkridge Community Center, the Ypsilanti Senior Center, the downtown Ypsilanti District Library, Corner Health Center, Washtenaw International High School, and the city's Department of Public Services as the nonprofits that received the systems. The project was so successful that it became SolarYpsi's model for future funding partnerships.


In 2016, SolarYpsi worked with Chart House Energy for the first time on the solar power system installation on the Ypsilanti Fire Station, 525 W. Michigan Ave. Rafson taught Strenski how to take advantage of a new way to capture the 30 percent Federal Renewable Energy Tax credit and depreciation for nonprofits. That installation was recognized as "a transformative smart project" when it won a Smart 50 Award in the Community Awards category.


Last year, SolarYpsi received the Solar Foundation's SolSmart Gold designation recognizing communities that make it faster, easier, and more affordable to go solar. Since Ypsi is the only city in Michigan to receive this award, Strenski believes it confirms Ypsi's leadership in solar power.


SolarYpsi is continuing to seek out projects to help fulfill its goal of installing 1,000 solar power systems by 2020. The next nonprofit the group is partnering with is Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley in an effort to put solar power on at least a dozen of the low-income homes that Habitat has built or renovated in Ypsi. Donations or other funding sources are still needed to bring the project to fruition.


"I would love to put solar on a low-income house, because what better way to help somebody out than to put $50 in their pocket every month for the next 30 years?" Strenski says. "I mean, talk about rebuilding a community."


Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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