In Chicago neighborhood, guarded optimism about microgrid

The Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago became the city’s African American intellectual, artistic and economic mecca as segregationist policies kept black people out of other areas.

Local leaders hope to build on that legacy with the microgrid that ComEd is proposing for the neighborhood.

ComEd says the project would provide resiliency and reliable electricity to Bronzeville, since microgrids, supported by their own electricity sources, disconnect from the larger grid when there are outages on the system.

Tangible benefits to individual customers will not be readily apparent. Residents report experiencing very few power outages in Bronzeville: among 20 people interviewed on a recent evening, only one was concerned about outages. The microgrid is also not expected to lower bills for nearby residents.

But local leaders and many residents say they like the idea of nurturing clean energy technology in Bronzeville, and hope the microgrid can be a springboard for related community-driven projects.

“It’s hard for people to recognize how sophisticated this community is in terms of sustainability and development,” said Paula Robinson, president of the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership. “So when ComEd said, ‘Hey here’s the future, we’ll get back to you on our plans,’ we’re like, ‘Hey, we have some things we can tell you about.’”

Big ideas

Robinson noted that the community development partnership is working to create jobs in transportation, tourism and technology, including a focus on energy.

“Bronzeville is one of those communities that has been an urban lab for a long time,” Robinson said. “Social scientists have studied Bronzeville to the Nth degree…From the electric blues to open heart surgery, there’s this long history of innovation because you were restricted to living here and trying to figure out an economy.”

Bruce Montgomery, co-founder of the Urban Innovation Center in Bronzeville, has three decades experience in the software, broadband and IT fields.

He hopes the Urban Innovation Center will have a role in running a visitor center or otherwise helping interpret the microgrid for locals and tourists, and he expects the microgrid will lead to more residents entering the clean technology field.

He noted that the local high school, Dunbar, was once a leading vocational academy, and could become a place for students to receive education and job training in emerging energy fields. He also thinks the microgrid relates to proposals the Urban Innovation Center is already pushing, like free neighborhood wifi and a local network of electric vehicles.

“Many people think the community is being manipulated or hadn’t really thought about this until ComEd showed up, but that’s really not the case,” said Montgomery. “Bronzeville has an amazing history of innovation and entrepreneurship, so residents like myself and others have been thinking deeply about wanting to have an intersection between technology innovation and economic opportunity for a long time. These are things that are coming authentically out of the community.”

Examples from IIT

A visit to the existing microgrid and related projects at the nearby Illinois Institute of Technology provides insight into the kinds of projects that Bronzeville leaders imagine blossoming in their neighborhood. The Bronzeville microgrid would be connected to the IIT microgrid in what backers say would be the country’s largest microgrid cluster. 

A sprawling model in an IIT control room shows the microgrid illuminating the campus, and illustrates how the electricity supply for different areas can be automatically and instantaneously adjusted. Related “smart” renewable energy projects are in the works across campus, in partnership with the IBEW labor union, highlighting the job creation and job training potential that backers say Bronzeville could also tap. The union is working with local high schools on renewable energy education.

New smart, efficient LED lights across IIT’s campus have cut down on crime, officials say. If campus needs to be evacuated, the lights can be manipulated to create a path guiding students to safety. A student developed an app that can spark nearby lights to blink if someone presses an emergency help button.

Smart solar-powered electric vehicle charging stations can tailor commercials and services to individual drivers, recognized by their license plates.

A “Solar U Farm” uses the power of the sun and a DC-current system to run soil sensors that trigger automatic watering and otherwise help operate an urban farm in an area often considered a food desert.

“This is a new concept that could be used in third world countries,” noted Harry Ohde, who runs a renewable energy training center jointly sponsored by IBEW and the National Electrical Contractors Association on Chicago’s South Side. “It’s a stand-alone system that’s just perfect for community gardens.” Benches in the garden could be outfitted with electric outlets to charge phones, or heaters to warm residents on cold days, Ohde noted.

Some skepticism

Bronzeville residents also have mixed feelings about the microgrid proposal. They welcome technology and the renewable energy that would likely be part of the microgrid, but view it with suspicion born of many broken promises and plans from higher-ups that turned out not to benefit them.

While waiting for a bus by a Bronzeville park on an unseasonably warm February evening, 76-year-old Eugene Clark described how he had once researched the specifics of solar and wind power, hoping to install renewable energy on his own home. Years later, he could still rattle off the wind speeds and efficiency rates he figured would be needed for a viable project. He concluded wind turbines could not be built in the densely populated Bronzeville neighborhood.

And he noted “we have plenty of rooftops for solar, but they might not be here too long” with increasing development and gentrification – a long-standing fear in the community. 

“The politicians are trying to restructure things to bring white folks back, but we won’t give up our God-given birth right like that,” Clark said.

A 46-year-old school administrator shopping at a new Mariano’s grocery store in Bronzeville said she would rather see investment in affordable housing than a microgrid.

“You want to be green and use our natural resources more effectively, that’s good,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “But you want the residents who have been in the neighborhood for a long time to benefit, not to be pushed out.”

Greg Brand, a 61-year-old teacher, worried whether the microgrid would contribute to gentrification or the destruction of housing, or raise electricity rates that he described as already “sky high.”

Despite his reservations, Brand is open to the idea. “I like new things, new technology, new innovation. If it changes things for the better I’m all for it,” he said.

Mushrooming microgrids

Funding for microgrids was stripped out of a massive Illinois energy bill passed in December. But ComEd vice president of smart grid and technology Joe Svachula said the Bronzeville microgrid will proceed, funded by federal grants and ratepayer bills.

The Bronzeville plans are among a host of microgrid experiments in the works nationwide.

The Department of Energy and national laboratories are funding and involved in a host of microgrid research and development projects, though these programs could be in jeopardy under the Trump administration. The military is also exploring microgrids as a way to have secure electricity and protect against terror attacks on the power system. And the Navy is developing microgrids suitable for remote Arctic locations.

During Superstorm Sandy, a microgrid on NYU’s campus earned accolades for keeping power on when much of the city went dark. After the storm, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a goal of expanding microgrids to 800 MW capacity by 2030.

Meanwhile New York state’s Reforming the Energy Vision program allocates $40 million for microgrids. A microgrid in Brooklyn will bring together the high number of solar panels already existing in the Park Slope neighborhood. And in New Jersey, the U.S. Department of Energy is supporting microgrids powering the transit systems in Jersey City, Newark and Hoboken.

The consulting firm Navigant says the U.S. has about 6 GW of microgrids installed. Worldwide, Navigant reports microgrids with a combined capacity of 15.6 GW proposed, operating or under development.

“It’s good utilities and we in the country are thinking about these things,” said Mohammad Shahidehpour, professor and chairman of electrical engineering and computer engineering at IIT. “Some other parts of the world are way more advanced. [The electricity infrastructure] in this country was designed in the ’60s. It’s time to do something substantial instead of tightening some screws here and there.”

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