10 Nov 2019

The grid of the future

The grid of the future

Chicago’s Bronzeville Community Microgrid (BCM) on the city’s South Side is laying the groundwork for the rapid future growth of distributed energy resources (DER) and technical innovations to enhance grid resilience and security. Developed by Chicago-based energy company Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), the BCM will connect to a microgrid already serving the nearby campus of Illinois Tech, creating the first utilityoperated microgrid cluster in the US. It is scheduled to be fully operational in 2020.

In 2019, the utility tested an ‘islanding’ of the microgrid cluster to confirm the ability of the microgrid to provide resilience of the electric system in the face of either severe weather conditions or in the event of a cybersecurity attack. During the test phase, the BCM was disconnected from ComEd’s main grid, effectively placing it into ‘island mode’, yet it proved capable of providing sufficient power to service its customers. The microgrid integrates and utilises distributed energy resources (DERs) such as battery storage and solar photovoltaic (PV) sources. “This test is an important milestone for ComEd and the Bronzeville community, and numerous supporters in government, academia and industry,” said Terence R. Donnelly, president of ComEd.


The project began in 2016 when ComEd received an initial development grant of $1 million from the US Department of Energy, followed by an additional $4 million grant during the course of the project.

The project has provided ComEd with the opportunity to innovate and develop technology to support the integration of 750 kW of solar power with 500 kW/2 MWh of battery storage, and it promises to create the groundwork for significant advancement in how electric utilities design and operate the grid. ComEd submitted a proposal to the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) to construct the first utility-operated microgrid cluster, which was to be located within the Bronzeville neighbourhood. The proposal was approved in February 2018, in part because the microgrid cluster was seen as the perfect way to enhance grid resilience and security by creating a ‘laboratory’ to study ways to maximise the value of the interaction between two microgrids.

As part of this project, ComEd will also install up to 38 phasor measurement units (PMUs) within the microgrid’s footprint that will collect highly granular, time-synchronised data. These measurement devices will provide value in a number of ways, in particular by improving the microgrid’s cybersecurity and helping with scenarios such as islanding or resynchronising with multiple points of interconnection.

When complete, the microgrid will have the capacity to feed 7MW of power to approximately 1,000 residences, businesses and public institutions in the microgrid footprint, which includes 11 customers providing critical public services, such as the headquarters of the Chicago Police and Fire Departments.


The project has been built on the smart grid platform that ComEd has constructed to improve the reliability and performance of the electric system serving over four million customers in northern Illinois, including Chicago. The microgrid’s islanding feature creates a critical step in expanding the region’s resilience capabilities, which is increasingly important considering the rise in the number and impact of major weather events, as well as the continuing threat of cyber and physical attacks against the grid. The islanding feature allows microgrids to serve as a powerful tool in protecting key portions of the grid from these challenges. A host of partners is working to develop this cluster with ComEd, including Illinois Tech, University of Denver, Argonne National Laboratory, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Quanta Technology, Siemens and the DOE.

The generation capacity for the Bronzeville Community Microgrid (BCM) will be deployed in two phases. The first phase was completed at the end of 2018, and succeeded in being able to supply 2.5MW of load. From an infrastructure standpoint, the BCM will include the reconfiguration of an existing feeder, the installation of 0.5MW/2MWh utility-owned battery energy storage, and at least 0.75MW of third party-owned solar PV. The second phase will consist of generating an additional 4.5MW of load, and will demonstrate the clustering capability with the adjacent IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology) microgrid.


The microgrid also serves as a key component of ComEd’s Community of the Future Initiative in Bronzeville, where ComEd is collaborating with residents to identify needs and opportunities to leverage smart grid technology and related assets to provide smart city services to residents. Already, ComEd has launched significant projects, including the installation of off-grid wind and solar-powered LED streetlights, and has partnered to provide technologies like electric vehicles to help solve first/last mile problems for vulnerable communities.

Exposing area youth to smart grid technology and developing interest in STEM education is another high priority for the Community of the Future, and ComEd is also partnering with Bronzeville’s Dunbar High School to sponsor an Energy Academy to prepare students for a career in the new energy economy.


It will be crucial to demonstrate the value of the Bronzeville Microgrid Project. However, a widely accepted industry standard for quantitatively measuring the benefits of a project such as the BCM does not yet exist.

ComEd has committed to collecting data that cover more than four dozen metrics ranging from its operational efficacy to its societal impact. During the first ten years of the project, ComEd will be releasing this data on an annual basis.

This research will provide valuable data illustrating how the Bronzeville Microgrid Project should impact on the reliability and resilience of the community’s power supply, and how it will affect the region by improving air quality and supporting economic development. In 2020, the utility will produce an initial benefit-cost analysis. It will holistically measure the effects of this project, enabling the analyses of other microgrid projects and thereby providing support for their deployment throughout the world.

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