1st Solar Street Light in Highland Park

3-02-2013 1st Solar Street Light in Highland Park

City of Highland Parks’ 1st Municipal Solar Street Light  …is community collaboration

I first became acquainted with A.J. O’Neil through business associates.  When he told me his story, it triggered a memory of that famous quote from Lao-tzu (604 BC – 531 BC), “ …a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. In the scope of recent history …this story is that first step.

The installation of a single solar streetlight in Highland Park, in time, may be regarded a minor historic event, but more so, it should serve as a testament to ordinary citizens who literally took power in their own hands to improve the safety and quality of life in their community.  At dusk on Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2012, a small group of organizers, stakeholders, and just plain curious, gathered to witness the ceremonial lighting of the first of an anticipated 200 solar streetlights to begin operation in Highland Park.

Bold Beginnings

It started with an idea and a website; www.soulardarity.com. The idea is born from necessity.  A.J. needed to provide a security light in his café parking lot.

Aj O'Neil hoists a solar panel for installation at 150 Victor St.

Aj O’Neil hoists a solar panel for installation at 150 Victor St. (photo Crain’s Business ; Gary Anglebrandt

It is no news that the city of Highland Park is in dire financial straits. In 2011, after years of unpaid electrical bills the City of Highland Park lost over 1,000 of its streetlights …mostly in neighborhoods off Woodward Ave.  Enter Mr. A.J. O’Neil, former roofer, café owner, and community activist, who saw this as an opportunity to leverage the potential of solar energy – to light his adopted neighborhood in Highland Park, and like a true revolutionary, eventually the whole city.  In his vision, he saw opportunity to create manufacturing jobs, reduce environmental damage, help people save on electricity bills, provide safe and secure neighborhoods, and give power back to small communities, like Highland Park.  Out of this vision, Soulardarity emerged as a grass-roots community campaign to install 200 solar streetlights over the next 5 years, and bring the neighborhood back to life.

A.J. O’Neil, spearheading the project, did his homework, and found a Holland, Michigan company, Solar Street Lights USA, that manufactures and installs high quality, custom engineered solar powered street lighting systems, which can be installed off-the –grid.  According to the company chief technical officer, Mr. Craig Brumel, the systems are made for long-term and reliable performance. The systems are designed for a wide range of physical and operating environments including the Michigan climate, and are perfect for rural, suburban and metropolitan areas. They can operate either ‘on’ or ‘off’ any electrical grid system. The streetlights can last many years with little or no maintenance and can be activated by a motion detector and monitored from a cell phone app. There is a modest ROI on these, so if you put them on a street corner in Highland Park or your cabin up north, it is much less expensive than stringing or trenching wire to a remote location.


You may already be aware of a social phenomena known as Crowdfunding. If not, crowdfunding has gained considerable traction as legitimate method to fund small and medium size projects.  To accomplish this, A.J. was able to mobilized a band of loyal volunteers, and community leaders around this idea and finance the project (over six thousand dollars) with on line donations and musical concerts, hence the ‘soul’ in Soulardarity.  To see how this works in detail, I recommend you visit their website www.indiegogo.com/soulardarity

solar light shines for the first time on Thanksgiving 11/22/12

solar light shines for the first time on Thanksgiving 11/22/12

Propelled with confidence, A.J. knows the importance of that first step. “Perhaps the most important part of the campaign is that, in the end, the streetlights will be community owned and managed and no one will ever be able to take them away from Highland Park”.  It is also AJ’s aspiration, “that this campaign will also provide a model – for other cities and towns to follow. We aim to bring this project across the nation – to sustainably light up every state and city we can reach”.


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