Chicago’s Bronzeville microgrid project is demonstrating the social justice benefits of decentralized energy with the completion this month of solar installations on 660 residential units in the Dearborn Homes Community.
The project, a partnership of Exelon subsidiary Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), developer VLV Development and the Chicago Housing Authority, also provides numerous learning opportunities for ComEd about using solar, storage, inverters and controllers in microgrids, said Aleksi Paaso, director, distribution planning, smart grid and innovation at ComEd. The project shows how solar-plus- storage can be a controllable resource for a microgrid.
The much-watched Bronzeville microgrid is a ComEd project that tests the concept of microgrid clusters, or a ‘grid of microgrids.’
The project is unique in that ComEd is linking the solar-plus-storage directly with the microgrid controllers.
For VLV Development, which specializes in sustainable projects, the effort is the first in what the company hopes will be a series of low-income solar housing projects linked to microgrids. In fact, the company’s goal is to develop 50 MW of solar-plus-storage for at-risk residents, one microgrid in each of the 50 Chicago wards, said Van Vincent, president and CEO, VLV Development Solutions.
Not a gilded grid
The goal of all the projects will be to provide resilience, sustainability and lower costs to members of communities most likely to be affected by climate change.
“Often we find with the more advanced technologies, the benefits go to more affluent communities; they don’t reach low-income communities,” said Vincent. These communities are also more vulnerable to being stranded or isolated during power outages, he said.
VLV Development installed 938 kW of solar, serving 16 high-rise public housing buildings. The installation includes both rooftop and ground-mounted PV.
The behind-the-meter solar goes to the microgrid under a distribution contract agreement between VLV and ComEd, said ComEd’s Passo. “We have a certain capacity of solar we can use for the microgrid, and we’re paying the developer for that portion of the output.”
Solar is a critical component of the microgrid, he said. “As part of this project, we’re developing and demonstrating cutting-edge technology: solar, smart inverters and storage, using microgrid controls to optimize the solar.”
The solar PV is located within the microgrid footprint. When the microgrid goes into island mode, the solar and microgrid can operate together, he added.
The project is unique in that ComEd is linking the solar-plus-storage directly with the microgrid controllers, he said.
Data collection and lessons
Before the Bronzeville microgrid project, ComEd received a US Department of Energy grant to build a controller that can control multiple microgrids. “This builds on that, enabling solar-plus- storage with a smart inverter to provide a controllable resource for the microgrid,” he said.
ComEd is collecting data on 55 metrics, including the microgrid’s impact on the community and critical infrastructure. The company is looking at how solar can be used as a resource for the microgrid, how to improve solar forecasting, and how to optimize the solar using the microgrid controller. The company is also studying when to use solar, when to store it, and how to balance it when the system is islanded, said Passo
In Mid-April, ComEd completed an islanding test using the solar and battery together controlled by the microgrid. “This demonstrated how we can go into conditions where islanding is possible,” he said.
The Dearborn Homes solar installation is supported by a $4 million federal grant to ComEd to design and deploy solar and storage in a microgrid.
The solar portion of the project is also supported by incentives from the Future Energy Jobs Act, clean energy legislation enacted by Illinois lawmakers in 2016. The incentives help reduce the upfront costs associated with the installation of solar panels. To get the incentives, VLV Development trained 35 workers in solar installations.
VLV Development is delivering a portion of the solar to the Chicago Housing Authority at a cost that will yield about $1 million in savings over 15 years, said VLV’s Vincent. The housing authority paid no up-front costs.
For Vincent, partnering with the Chicago Housing Authority and ComEd — while training the workers — yielded both challenges and education about how to approach the next project.
“This has been the most complex project I have been a part of in terms of public engagement and meeting all the different needs of each partner.” The company needed to meet ComEd’s guidelines and restrictions related to installing solar. In addition, the housing authority added more requirements. Using trainees to install the solar created another layer of complexity
“It would be better to have a longer pre-development cycle because of the unforeseen challenges of working with each entity and the other dynamics,” Vincent said. “But this project is an example showing this can work, and the lessons learned we will use to develop an easier path for the remaining 49 MW.”
MARIA in action
The company’s mission is to provide mitigation, adaptation, resilience, innovation and awareness — or MARIA, said Vincent.
“The Bronzeville microgrid project is a reflection of what MARIA looks like in action,” he said.
The Bronzeville microgrid is designed to serve 10 critical facilities. It will connect to a nearby microgrid at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Working in coordination, the microgrids are expected to demonstrate how the whole-is-greater-than-the-sum of its parts when microgrids ‘talk’ to each other, an important step toward creating a decentralized grid.
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