Meet the Black Woman Leading Detroit’s Clean Energy Charge

At first, Deana Neely hesitated to disclose Detroit Voltage’s status as a Black woman-owned business in a white male-dominated industry. Then, she realized the power in embracing identity.

Detroit Voltage founder Deana Neely at New Lab in Detroit, where she met with Google representatives about being featured in a new campaign. (Photo by Alejandro Ugalde Sandoval / Planet Detroit)

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This story was originally published by Planet Detroit.

While being a stay-at-home mom, Deana Neely had an idea. She began researching federal contracts and saw that Black women-owned businesses could win contracts and subcontract to other firms.

She also noticed that properties were being purchased all over Detroit. She felt that Black Detroiters needed a bigger stake in the contract work being performed amid the city’s development boom.

So Neely studied to get her electrical contractor’s license and founded Detroit Voltage, a Detroit-based Black-owned company that provides electrical contracting services for residential, commercial and government projects.

“It took me months. But after I got that first contract, my phone literally never stopped ringing,” Neely said. “Within my first six months of operating, we generated over six figures in revenue [and] became like the go-to electrical contractor in the city.”

Initially, Neely said she was not forthcoming about being a Black woman-owned business.

“It is very much so a white male-dominated industry, and I didn’t want anyone to know that I owned the company. And so everything about it looked like a white male owned it,” Neely said.

But, when she participated in a Google small business accelerator, the leaders of Google’s program encouraged her to bring her face to the forefront, a move that paid dividends later.

Addressing a lack of Black contractors in Detroit development

The U.S. construction industry remains largely white and male-dominated. Only 10.6% of construction managers in the U.S. are women, and only 4.8% are Black, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as of January 2024.

Despite the sector’s homogeneity, Neely is inspiring other people of color to enter the skilled trades with a focus on sustainability.

Today, Detroit Voltage is installing electric vehicle charging stations for DTE Energy in Detroit. And she’s also helping others enter the field.

In the Spring of 2022, Elevate, a national nonprofit based in Chicago, tapped Neely to help shape the Detroit Clean Energy Contractor Accelerator Program. The program trains contractors from underrepresented backgrounds to bring their businesses into the clean energy economy. The following year, Neely participated in the program’s first Detroit cohort.

Inspiring people of color to enter the clean energy sector

“What we’re trying to do is build up a network of contractors that are located in Detroit,” said Tim Skrotzki, Associate Director of partnerships at Elevate. “We want these contractors to look like and be from the community we’re working in. With Detroit being predominantly Black, 78%, we want contractors to reflect that.” (Editor’s note: Skrotzki is an Advisory Council member for Planet Detroit.)

Beyond training workers in the space, the nonprofit seeks to get general contractors to understand clean energy technologies so that they can oversee such projects, he added.

Neely said the clean energy accelerator program has helped build a connected local ecosystem for contractors like her.

“It also opened our eyes to partnering to get the work done. So if we didn’t have the capacity to do it directly, we can work within the group to make it happen,” she said.

Detroit Voltage was contracted to install EV charging stations across the city on behalf of DTE Energy. Neely said that the two began working together last April, and Detroit Voltage had installed about 100 EV charging stations on behalf of DTE. Neely first connected with the utility giant through its Bright Ideas for Neighborhoods Business pitch competition, during which small local businesses compete for a cash prize. Neely won $5,000 at the competition.

Detroit Voltage was installing EV chargers prior to participating in Elevate’s accelerator, but the program introduced Neely to other possible services beyond EVs. For example, Neely said she plans to implement battery backup preventative maintenance sometime in the near future, such as inspections, testing, and upkeep of battery backup systems.

“We have a very positive working relationship with Detroit Voltage. They are a DTE-certified electrician who takes part in our Home EV Charger Installation program,” Ryan R. Lowry, spokesperson for DTE told Planet Detroit.

Before launching Detroit Voltage in April 2016, Neely spent more than a decade working for the Detroit Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department. There, she met her now ex-husband and went on to have two children.

Similarly, Neely said she has tried to spread the word to young people in youth and professional organizations about opportunities in the industry.

“Everywhere you go there’s construction happening, ” Neely said. “Once you have this skill, you can go anywhere in the world and thrive with just the skill alone.”

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Tatiana Walk-Morris is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in Hour Detroit magazine, Crain’s Chicago Business, Planning magazine, Vice, Vox and multiple other publications. She has covered subjects ranging from environmentalism and health to business and technology.

Tags: detroitrenewable energy

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