Could a solar-enhanced urban farm change the face of an entire neighborhood? For GOOD Maker’s Use Technology for GOOD challenge, we partnered with NTEN seeking ideas for a project that fuels social change through technology. The winning idea, Off Grid Solar System for an Urban Farm, was submitted by Detroit’s Green Economy Leadership Training (Solidarity). Their pilot project: installing a solar energy system at a well-loved, organic urban farm in the Highland Park area.
Solidarity is working with Food Field, a four-acre farm in Detroit that began in 2011. Over the course of a year, the urban farm, owned by Noah Link, has harvested several thousands of organic produce for the surrounding community and has built strong relationships with its neighbors. The farm’s vision is to find a sustainable solution to feed Detroit—but as the farm expands, it needs energy. With Solidarity's help, Food Field aims to become Highland Park’s first solar-powered farm running entirely off the grid.
A four-person team has been working for the past two months to secure the solar system’s components, which cost roughly $8000. Over the past few weeks, the team has been training, designing the system, and networking with electricians to assist with the project. Link, who will live on the farm in a renovated shipping container, will rely on the solar-powered system not only for farming but also to support for his day-to-day living. The power generated from the system will have a range of duties, from powering Link's security lights, his hoop house fan, tools, cooler, and kitchen. Solidarity plans to finish the system installation by the end of the month, and Link’s move-in date is slated for the fall.
While the sun’s absence in a Michigan winter could potentially pose a threat, team member Jackson Koeppel assures that there will be enough light and hopes to spread the system to other local businesses. If anything, the team’s largest concern is making sure the solar-powered system doesn’t widen the gap among economic classes, especially considering that Solidarity’s focus is to allow those who have a real need for energy to go off-grid on a low budget.
"I’d be ecstatic if everyone with means to do so would go solar," Koeppel says. "There are so many benefits—but it just remains an equity issue. If all those people who afford the system get it, and all the people who can’t afford the system from different economic strata can’t get it—it’s widening that gulf. With folks like Noah and other folks in Detroit, we’re finding ways to spread out that upfront costs.”
By next year, Solidarity hopes to be operating as a solar business that will allow people to get the technology without breaking their backs. They’re currently in talks with four neighborhood businesses and plan to focus on turning Highland Park into a solar-powered community. The next step is to build neighborhood trust by doing presentations about their system one house at a time. Eventually, Koeppel hopes that solar power will kickstart Motor City.
"On paper, a neighborhood like Highland Park is not the first place where you want to start a business," Koeppel says. "But we’re changing the perception of the neighborhood. If people are fixing up their homes, generating their own electricity, and saving money, they create value to a place that has been by and large been written off as valueless."
Photos courtesy of Jackson Koeppel