The country’s first neighborhood microgrid is coming online in Chicago

A network of solar panels, generators, batteries and more will boost resilience for Bronzeville, a historic Black neighborhood.

Solar panels dot the rooftops of the Dearborn Homes housing complex, part of utility ComEd’s Bronzeville community microgrid project in Chicago. (ComEd)
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Back in 2016, Chicago-area utility Commonwealth Edison unveiled its plan for a community of the future” in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, the city’s center of Black history and culture. The idea was to install backup generators and grid controls that could provide local residents and critical services such as hospitals and nursing homes with always-on power when the grid fails, as well as support the growth of rooftop solar, batteries and electric vehicles. 

Six years later, the $25 million initiative is on the cusp of becoming the country’s first neighborhood-scale microgrid — and it’s a project that could serve as a model for utilities and communities across the country. 

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Last month, ComEd and the U.S. Department of Energy completed the final tests indicating that the microgrid’s natural-gas-fired generators, rooftop solar systems, batteries and advanced grid-control systems can successfully disconnect and reconnect to the larger grid. That’s a key proving point for the project’s goal of being able to power more than 1,000 residences, businesses and public buildings, including Chicago police and fire department headquarters, during broader grid outages. 

This accomplishment is the result of $5 million in DOE grants and in-kind contributions from corporate partners and the nearby Illinois Institute of Technology, a university with its own campus microgrid connected to the ComEd system. It’s a pretty significant” milestone, according to Aleksi Paaso, ComEd’s director of distribution planning, smart grid and innovation. 

It’s not easy to smoothly disconnect a microgrid from the larger grid during blackouts and then smoothly reconnect when the power is back. You have these transition modes when you go from grid-connected to islanded or islanded to grid-connected,” he said. Those…are definitely the hardest parts. That view is backed up by experiences and lessons learned from microgrid projects across the country and the world.”

It’s even harder when the microgrid in question isn’t confined to a single location with a single connection to the larger grid, as is the case with the Bronzeville project. 

This is a complex microgrid system, leveraging two feeders from two different substations and an interconnection point with a customer [that has] its own microgrid,” Paaso said in an interview. The existing microgrid, on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus, will be integrated into the new, larger Bronzeville microgrid. 

A big part of DOE’s effort on the project was building an advanced microgrid master controller with the capacity to handle that complexity. There are a lot of important capabilities related to future grid operations that this project is testing,” Paaso said. That’s one of the key areas that the industry, and DOE in particular, [was] looking to understand.”

(ComEd)

Now that it’s ready, the Bronzeville microgrid can serve as a test bed for how distributed energy resources such as rooftop and community solar, batteries and EV chargers can work together with larger-scale battery and generator installations, Paaso said. ComEd will spend the coming year integrating these types of resources in Bronzeville, including EV chargers to bolster plans to offer EV ride-share services in the neighborhood. 

By early 2023, the utility plans to have these assets up and running not just for emergencies but also to balance and optimize the interplay of distributed energy resources with the larger grid, he said.

It’s serving as a laboratory of what the future might look like,” said Michelle Blaise, ComEd’s senior vice president of technical services. 

A central part of ComEd’s work on the project is finding ways to share the value of the microgrid with the Bronzeville community, she said. 

The microgrid as a community energy resource 

The vision — an interconnected web of distributed energy resources that can keep the lights on during emergencies and increase the grid’s capacity for solar, batteries and EV chargers while keeping power bills low — is something of a holy grail for utilities and microgrid developers. The Bronzeville project is proving out the technical capabilities to make it possible, said Mohammad Shahidehpour, the professor who leads microgrid research and development at the Illinois Institute of Technology. 

IIT’s work to integrate its microgrid with ComEd’s Bronzeville system shows how private and public entities can work together to save lives,” he said. In case of an emergency, they can be hooked together and help each other.”

The part that’s sort of viewed as a stumbling block is the regulatory issues,” Shahidehpour said. If there are more microgrids around, then there need to be additional rules and regulations around who’s doing what and how the costs and revenue are split.” 

ComEd’s Bronzeville project has faced significant regulatory challenges, Shahidehpour pointed out. Illinois has a competitive energy market, so distribution utilities like ComEd and Ameren, the utility serving most of the rest of the state, aren’t allowed to own their own power-generation resources. But Illinois lawmakers passed energy legislation in 2016 that relaxed that limitation specifically for the purpose of building community microgrids. Both utilities originally had hoped to build many more microgrids, but so far only ComEd’s Bronzeville project has moved forward under the 2016 law.

The Bronzeville plan also faced significant pushback from environmental and community advocates that expressed concerns about its costs and its initial emphasis on fossil-fueled generators over solar, batteries and other low-carbon alternatives. The final plan brought more of those clean alternatives into the mix, with the goal of maximizing the use of solar and batteries to save on fuel costs and reduce carbon emissions.

But generators are a vital piece of a microgrid that must serve a peak load of about 7 megawatts in the Bronzeville neighborhood. Trying to achieve the equivalent level of resilient and long-lasting power from solar-charged batteries would be far more costly and require more solar panels than a dense urban neighborhood can host. 

ComEd and other microgrid partners have worked to engage and involve Bronzeville community groups and residents in the project, an effort that has attracted criticism as well as praise.

Billy Davis, general manager at JitneyEV, which is working with ComEd to develop EV ridesharing in the neighborhood, had this to say to Energy News Network:

We’re trying to demonstrate that, particularly in our community, beneficial electrification comes in many forms, not just the electrification of transportation…so that folks in Black and Brown communities, people who are ratepayers, see the benefits of energy efficiency and beneficial electrification and how it impacts on our health.” 

From emergency backup power to distributed energy control

One big question that has persisted is how much of a microgrid’s infrastructure should be owned by utilities that get to pass the costs of building it onto their customers and how much should be open to competition from outside parties. This dispute has hindered attempts to create microgrid programs in states such as California, where the threat of devastating wildfires has forced utilities to cut power to significant portions of their grids, sometimes for days at a time. 

Utilities do play a vital role in balancing the interaction of different types of energy assets on a shared power grid, noted Paaso of ComEd. Part of the utility’s work with DOE has been on sensors that can monitor and respond to shifts in solar production, EV charging loads or customer-owned battery operations, he said. 

Overall, this controllability of generation resources has broader applications,” he said, not just for ComEd but for the industry in general.” 

Utilities across the world are working on distributed energy resource management systems,” or DERMS, that can help them manage the shift from a largely one-way power delivery network to one that includes large numbers of distributed energy assets on the edges of the grid. 

The past year’s winter storms in Texas, hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and heat waves across the U.S. West have also forced utilities and their state regulators to take a hard look at how distributed energy can make power grids more resilient. Chicago faces the threat of winter blizzards, summer heat waves and wind storms known as derechos, one of which left tens of thousands of Midwestern residents without power for more than a week in 2020

Microgrids can offer a central control point for balancing local assets in a way that stabilizes how they interact with the utility grid, Shahidehpour said. 

You will never reach a 100 percent distributed system. No matter what we do, we will always need the utility,” he opined. However, to enhance resilience [and] to promote reliability, you need the participation of your customers.”

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media.