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Detroit Plans to use Vacant Lots to Harness Solar Power

City street at night

Patricia Kobylski fondly remembers a time when her eastside Detroit neighborhood was bustling with people. Nowadays, it's much quieter with only about 10 houses on her street where there used to be 50 or 60. But exciting changes are on the horizon for Patricia's community. The city has announced a plan to install solar arrays—ground-based solar panels—using the vacant land that Detroit has in abundance.

Pending City Council approval, Patricia's Gratiot-Findlay neighborhood will soon see solar arrays covering around 23 acres. Nearby, two other eastside neighborhoods will also benefit, with arrays planned for nearly 41 acres and 40 acres respectively. This initiative is part of a broader plan to build solar energy arrays on approximately 200 acres across Detroit, aiming to generate clean energy to offset the electricity usage of 127 municipal buildings.

Detroit is investing $14 million from an existing utility fund to cover the upfront costs, including land acquisition and preparation. These solar fields are expected to save the city $4.4 million annually. Mayor Mike Duggan is optimistic, pointing to the substantial growth in property values and tax revenues in other neighborhoods where the city has invested. He believes this $1.1 million yearly investment in underdeveloped neighborhoods will spur real recovery.

The Solar Neighborhoods project is being hailed as a national model for addressing climate change. The plan emerged after President Joe Biden challenged cities to expand their use of solar power, leveraging the Inflation Reduction Act's federal tax incentives.

Over the past year, local groups have engaged in discussions about hosting solar fields. Selected neighborhoods will receive $15,000 to $25,000 for community benefits, which can be used for energy efficiency upgrades like new windows, roof repairs, and energy-efficient appliances. Mayor Duggan hopes to begin construction by the end of the year.

Donna Anthony, a resident in one of the selected neighborhoods, looks forward to improving her home with new attic insulation, vinyl siding, and a generator. She's also excited about the prospect of eliminating vacant lots and abandoned houses, which often attract illegal dumping.

Detroit has made significant strides under Duggan's leadership in stabilizing and revitalizing neighborhoods. Since 2014, the city has demolished at least 24,000 vacant structures, with many lots being sold to adjacent homeowners for maintenance and beautification.

According to Sarah Banas Mills from the University of Michigan’s Center for EmPowering Communities, secure solar farms can aesthetically enhance these areas. While solar panels might not be the first choice for every community, they offer a unique solution to illegal dumping in Detroit’s industrial landscapes.

Detroit, once home to 1.8 million people in the 1950s, now has around 633,000 residents. Despite the population decline, the city has plenty of land, with about 19 square miles currently vacant. Anika Goss of Detroit Future City acknowledges the challenges of integrating solar farms but sees potential benefits in energy efficiency for residents, even though the solar energy won't directly lower their utility bills.

The city has arranged buy-outs for 21 homeowners in the selected areas to make way for the solar arrays, with renters receiving relocation costs and 1.5 years of free rent.

With these solar projects, Detroit is turning its vacant spaces into valuable assets, paving the way for a cleaner, brighter future.

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