The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 left many utilities searching for ways to bolster grid resiliency. One of those ways included microgrids, which could accelerate a cleaner, more resilient grid, according to its supporters.
Illinois' largest utility, Commonwealth Edison, is now undertaking plans to build at least one microgrid with funds from the Department of Energy, with hopes to build out at least five more depending on the outcome of pending legislation.
ComEd is using a $4 million award from the Department of Energy to install the infrastructure to support a microgrid in Chicago’s South Side.
The Illinois utility is one of three to receive awards under the Department of Energy (DOE)’s SHINES (Sustainable and Holistic Integration of Energy Storage and Solar PV) program, which is designed to demonstrate the integration of solar technologies with energy storage and control technologie
Overall, the DOE awarded $18 million to six entities under the SHINES program, which falls under both DOE’s SunShot Initiative and its $220 million Grid Modernization Initiative (GMI) that was launched in January 2016.
GMI cuts across the different groups within the DOE and aims to field test solar, storage and associated smart power technologies that can pave the way to integrating more distributed solar power assets on to the grid.
Both SHINES and the SunShot Initiative, announced in February 2011, are within the DOE’s office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). Within EERE, the DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office has a fiscal year 2016 budget of $241.6 million.
SunShot itself funds research, development, demonstration, and deployment of projects aimed at driving down the cost of solar electricity to $0.06/kWh or $1/watt, exclusive of incentives.
ComEd’s planned Bronzeville solar-storage microgrid will be located and linked with an existing microgrid at the Illinois Institute of Technology, creating what the utility calls the first “microgrid cluster” in the world. That link is being built under a $1.2 million grant from the DOE that ComEd received in 2014. The SHINES project is expected to be completed in three years.
The proposed 10-MW Bronzeville microgrid project would serve as “a blueprint for other utility-owned microgrids around the country,” as well as “an important precursor to ComEd’s proposed development, via its Future Energy Plan legislation currently under consideration in Springfield, of six microgrids to protect critical public infrastructure in northern Illinois,” ComEd spokesman John Schoen said in an email.
The Bronzeville microgrid would be in the city’s South Side is near Chicago police headquarters. Other locations would include the Illinois Medical District in Chicago, DuPage County government complex, the Aurora Federal Aviation Administration facility, the Chicago Heights water pumping and treatment facility, and Rockford International Airport.
Overall ComEd is investing $2.6 billion infrastructure, half for modernization and half for the implementation of smart grid technology.
Much like ComEd’s smart grid project, “the legislation would bring a predictability that allows for more accurate future planning,” Schoen wrote.
Illinois' microgrid future
Illinois is a restructured state that does not allow distribution utilities such as ComEd to own generation. That also means that utilities cannot put the cost of building or installing assets that might be considered generation into rate base.
Legislation under consideration in the General Assembly failed in the last legislative session and has not been introduced. The legislation (HB 3328 and SB 1879), among other things, would have amended the state’s Public Utilities Act, required utilities to include “cost-effective voltage-optimization measures in their energy efficiency measures,” and directed the Illinois Commerce Commission to issue a report on how the state can “continue to encourage electric utilities in their efforts regarding the evaluation of emerging technologies, products, and services associated with the provision of electric service to provide their customers with reliable, efficient, and safe electric service.”
“We continue to work towards a legislative solution in order to bring the benefits of the Future Energy Plan, including microgrids, to our customers,” Schoen said in the email.
There is some talk that a new bill will be introduced that would combine elements from three different energy bills from the General Assembly’s previous session into a single bill. But “with the way the Illinois legislature is working or not working, I don’t know if we’ll have any major energy legislation at all,” C.D. Davidsmeyer, a member of the Illinois House of Representatives and the Republican spokesperson for the Energy Committee, said.
ComEd would likely face pushback if it pushes forward with the legislation. “We don’t want to make microgrids a monopoly service; we want them competitively bid,” David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that represents the interests of residential utility customers in Illinois, said.
Kolata said CUB thinks the Bronzeville project has a lot of promise, but “we think six is too many. We would like to see the microgrid project go forward but, we want to see it treated as a pilot project that can provide empirical data,”
Developers in the state are also concerned that changing the law to allow ComEd to participate in the generation business could push them out of the market for distributed resources such as solar power used in a microgrid and, possibly, the storage affiliated with those solar panels. One way to approach that would be to force ComEd to conduct a competitive bidding process for the microgrids it wants to build.
In terms of larger concerns, a microgrid may not represent a lot of generation, but if the law were changed to allow ComEd back into the generation business, that could be “the camel’s nose in the tent,” said Harold Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Midwestern environmental advocacy group.
ComEd said that the lessons it will learn from its initial public microgrid projects are particularly important for the data they will generate and because they could serve as a blueprint for other microgrids in Illinois and around the country.
“Right now ComEd is focused on engaging with the Bronzeville community partners, stakeholders and residents to gain a better understanding and seek their input on how this project can benefit the entire community,” Schoen said in an email.
“It is too early to speculate on legislative outcomes and potential alternate paths,” he said. “We and our community partners are excited about the possibilities and benefits microgrids can provide to Illinois and to our customers by helping to deliver cleaner, greener, and more resilient power.”