After Some Jitters, ComEd Serves More Than 1,000 Customers with Bronzeville Microgrid Islanded from Grid

May 24, 2024
The much-watched Bronzeville Community Microgrid was formally deployed May 24, the result of a collaborative effort that aims to demonstrate the benefits of an urban community microgrid – and eventually – nested microgrids.

On May 17, when ComEd for the first time islanded the much-watched Bronzeville Community Microgrid and began serving more than 1,000 customers – including Chicago’s public safety headquarters Sainab Ninalowo had her fingers crossed. 

“I was worried about whether customers would see power quality issues. This was the first time we were controlling the microgrid with the master controller and feeding power through the microgrid’s generators,” said the senior manager of smart grid and innovation for ComEd.

The 1,000-plus customers served at that moment included a school, elderly residents and an environmental justice community.

“Dropping customers was a no-no,” she said.

Microgrid formally turned on May 24

The May 17 event was a success, she said. On May 24, ComEd, microgrid provider Enchanted Rock, housing developer Dearborn Homes and the Chicago Housing Authority formally turned on the microgrid at Dearborn Homes. Earlier, photovoltaics (PV) were installed on 16 residential units in the Dearborn Homes community.

Ninalowo’s jitters were justified. Many in the industry and beyond have followed the Bronzeville microgrid project because it will provide power, when islanded, to customers in a residential and small business district in South Chicago, basically powering an entire neighborhood during outages.

“Other utilities have smaller scale microgrids,” said Ninalowo. “This is the first large microgrid serving a neighborhood with more than 1,000 customers.” 

Bronzeville microgrid to connect to neighboring IIT microgrid

Just as important, in 2025, the microgrid is expected to be capable of nesting with the Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) microgrid, which was completed in 2013 and is located nearby, said David O’Dowd, spokesman for ComEd.

With the microgrid connected to the IIT microgrid, both IIT and Bronzeville Community Microgrid customers could experience increased resiliency, he said. The microgrid clustering allows the two microgrids to operate islanded from the main utility grid but connected to each other, with each microgrid having its own controller.

The Bronzeville Community Microgrid, funded in part by a $4 million federal Department of Energy grant, consists of 750 kW of PV, a 500 kW/2 MWh energy storage system and 5 MW of dispatchable natural gas generation. The solar and storage are expected to keep the microgrid running for four hours. ComEd owns the battery, Enchanted Rock owns the natural gas generators, and the Chicago Housing Authority owns the solar PV. Siemens Energy and ComEd developed the microgrid’s master controller.

The need to address legal, contractual and permitting issues

It was important for ComEd to work with community members to create this project, said Ninalowo. Partnering with Enchanted Rock and the Chicago Housing Authority created some legal and contractual challenges. The utility’s legal partners had to draw up contracts that work for all the parties involved. For example, the contracts spell out how the assets will be maintained and how all partners need to be accountable, she said.

Not only were the legal and contractual issues complex, but so was the permitting. Utilities embarking on similar ventures in urban areas should be prepared for a potentially lengthy permitting and zoning process, Ninalowo said. For example, the city of Chicago’s permitting process caused some delays for the Bronzeville project. Allen Schurr, chief commercial officer at Enchanted Rock, earlier said the process had been “arduous.”

But the team overcame that hurdle, he said this week.

“The permitting was resolved several months ago, construction and commissioning are completed, and the microgrid is ready to serve,” Schurr said.

ComEd is now studying what type of challenges might surface when the Bronzeville and IIT microgrids are connected, said Christian Mukania, manager of project execution, smart grid and technology at ComEd.

“If we identify a fault – something that goes wrong – how will the system respond and what can we do to prevent problems?” he said.

Deploying technology that can increase resilience

ComEd’s studies of the Bronzeville project don’t focus only on nesting with the IIT microgrid, he said. ComEd is testing technology – synchrophasors – that allow the utility to “see” the power quality in real time and more quickly than it could before. This can lead to additional reliability and resilience, Mukania said.

“With this technology, we have granular measurements and visibility, so we can respond to events quickly,” he said. These studies will be useful to other parts of ComEd’s territory, he added.

The microgrid is part of ComEd’s Community of the Future project, which includes “smart kiosks” with Wi-Fi hotspots for community members, along with real-time information about weather alerts and emergencies. Also part of the community are five electric vehicle chargers and renewables-powered streetlights. And the community features the Bronzeville Renaissance Mural, painted by local artists with help from local students, on the outside of a ComEd-owned building in the neighborhood.

Deploying nested microgrids in California to boost resilience

Nested microgrids are still relatively rare. In June 2023, Sunpower and KB Home flipped the switch on a nested microgrid project in two new neighborhoods in Menifee, California.

And three tribes are looking to create nested microgrids in Humboldt County, California. The tribes hunt and gather – and having reliable electricity for refrigerating food is essential. The nested microgrids would provide resilience during outages.

In addition to eventually demonstrating the benefits of nested microgrids, the Bronzeville Community Microgrid project is unique because it’s a partnership between a utility, a microgrid provider and the Chicago Housing Authority. Friday’s deployment is the culmination of much planning and collaboration.

“This collaboration is a prime example of how working together can enhance resilience, sustainability and energy independence,” said Schurr. “We hope this initiative will serve as a model for communities across the country, showcasing the power of innovative solutions in meeting local reliability needs."

About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

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