If you’re looking for proof that one person can make a difference, look no further than the community of Ypsilanti (ips-ill-ANN-tee) in southeast Michigan, just outside of Detroit. Commonly called “Ypsi” for short, the town is on its way to becoming a Midwest solar destination, thanks in large part to the dialogue started by Dave Strenski.
When he’s not at his day job as a computer systems engineer, chances are Dave can be found atop a roof somewhere in town or giving a talk on solar energy. He is the brains and brawn behind a local community group that is helping the town “think solar.”
SolarYpsi, as Dave and his like-minded band of helpers are known, is run through the local food co-op, and is really nothing more than a website and some “solar geeks” who come together to work on projects. So far, the group has installed four small-scale PV systems in town, and Dave’s signature solar presentations have empowered a number of area businesses, schools, and homeowners to initiate solar projects independent of SolarYpsi. But that’s just the beginning, if Dave has his way.
“Ypsi is a typical small Michigan town that has been devastated by the collapse of American manufacturing. It is economically depressed, so there is not a lot of money flowing for solar projects, but we’re making progress,” Dave says. “My hope is that we can attract more progressive-thinking people and rebuild the town around solar, renewable energy, and other technologies of the future.”
While Dave is modest about his efforts and always speaks in “we” when referring to SolarYpsi, those in town, even the mayor, seem to agree: “It’s all Dave.” It all began in 2004 with a rooftop PV installation at the Ypsi Food Co-op, the member-owned grocery store where Dave volunteered as a handyman. The store’s manager, Corinne Sikorski, encouraged Dave to research whether solar power would work for the co-op. “With his typical energy and enthusiasm, Dave ran with the idea,” Sikorski says. “He must have read everything he could find on solar power and explored every financing angle out there.”
With advanced degrees in civil and mechanical engineering, Dave—who admits his interest in solar comes from being “more of a geek than an environmentalist”—picked up the nuances of solar electricity and installation rather quickly. He surprised even himself when his amateur grant-writing skills won a $6,000 state grant to fund a 760-watt demonstration system for the food co-op.
As a condition of the grant, Dave had to create an educational presentation on solar energy. He started showing the slides and speaking around town to anyone who would listen—church groups, school children, farmers, and business owners. One thing led to another, and as word spread of Dave’s newfound expertise in solar, people began coming to him with questions and project ideas.
The growing interest in his solar talks inspired Dave to do more, and it was on his commute to work in 2007 when he realized the next step: City Hall.
“Every day I would be stopped at the traffic light on the corner of South Huron and Michigan Avenue, and be staring at the back of City Hall,” Dave says. “After several weeks of staring at this big blank wall facing south with no shadows, I decided to call the mayor and see what he thought about putting PV modules up on the wall. I thought it would be a perfect place, for both its solar and public exposure.”
With sketches in hand, Dave met with Ypsilanti Mayor Paul Schreiber. The mayor liked the idea, but there was one catch: The project needed approval from the Ypsilanti Historic District Commission (YHDC). Since the installation was the first solar project within the town’s historic district and would set a precedent for future projects, it took more than three years for the YHDC and the City Council to create the necessary guidelines and approve a final design.