Electric Utilities are Modernizing the Grid and Connecting Communities

Contributed by: Shay Bahramirad, Aleksi Paaso, & Sandor Williams ComEd, Chicago

For electric utilities everywhere, transformation is the new normal – and it’s loaded with challenges and opportunities.  The realities of climate change and increased relevance of cyber as well as physical grid security underscore the need not only for reliability but resiliency of the electric system. 

The declining costs of solar PV and energy storage, growing understanding of the importance of carbon reduction and theexcitement around smart city technologies signal the shifting roles utilities are playing in the lives of customers and communities.   

Chicago is a community with deep historical roots and an electric system more than 100 years old. Modernization is not a ‘nice-to-have’, it is an economic imperative to ensure the city continues to lead in the 21st Century. The Smart Grid Innovation Corridor launched in 2009 in conjunction with the company’s advanced meter pilot project involving the installation of 131,000 smart meters to evaluate operational benefits. The corridor encompassed more than 10 Chicago-area communities and five pilot projects divided into three major areas: expansion of Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI), intelligent substations and integration of plug-in electric hybrid (PHEV) and all-electric vehicles.  It proved valuable in validating concepts, products and customer needs and interests that were incorporated into the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act (EIMA) that was enacted by the Illinois General Assembly in 2011.  It unlocked investments of $2.6 billion of investment that ComEd used to upgrade electrical distribution infrastructure and deploy AMI across northern Illinois where ComEd serves 70 percent of the state’s population. Grid modernization investments focused on improving reliability as thousands of miles of cable were replaced, from underground to mainline and high voltage cables. More than 30,000 manholes were assessed. More than 880,000 wood poles were inspected, and more than 20,000 of them were replaced. Investments in storm hardening were made to reduce susceptibility of certain circuits to storm-related damage, including high winds, thunder storms and ice storms.  

EIMA has delivered on promises for improving customer service and system reliability. Since 2012, customers have seen 45 percent fewer outages on average. Last year Chicago saw the frequency of outages reduced by nearly 60 percent. The human impact is significant as well. More than 4,500 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions were added and $1.3 billion in capital was deployed with Minority- and Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBE) from 2012-2017.  

The next focus is to leverage the strength of the smarter grid and strong community relationships to continue driving change, not merely respond to it.

The Power of Collaboration 

Bronzeville is a storied neighborhood with a rich legacy of creativity and diversity and engaged citizenry on Chicago’s South Side. The ComEd’s Community of the Future is an active program that works with residents and community leaders, civic groups, faith-based organizations, schools and businesses to identify and prioritize opportunities to enhance everyday lives.  In about three years, this robust collaboration has created a living laboratory for emerging technologies and related services.   

From the beginning of the project, community members sharedthat residents, especially seniors, needed more transportation options. Innova EV, a local pioneer in the electric vehicles, responded and now offers EV transportation service to residents of three senior citizen centers in Bronzeville. Routes include popular destinations like pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, medical facilities and public transit.  Residents of the senior centers are hired to drive and support the service and the charging station supporting the service is located on the property of a popular Bronzeville B&B.  The program is expanding to serve another niche market – university students – starting with Illinois Tech, one of the nation’s leading engineering schools.     

Learning from the Nation’s First Utility Scale Microgrid Cluster

Illinois Tech plays a prominent role in the Community of the Future, especially with the construction of the microgrid that serves as the backbone of the initiative.  The BronzevilleCommunity Microgrid (BCM) has received more than $5 million in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). It will enable the study of how microgrids support the integration of advanced energy technologies, including solar and battery storage, onto the grid and increase grid security to keep power flowing to residents, businesses and critical facilities even during extreme weather or a catastrophic event.  

The project will produce the first utility-operated microgrid cluster in the nation as it will connect with a microgrid already sited on the campus of Illinois Tech, enabling optimization of both through a sharing of resources.  

Energy storage pilots are also underway in Bronzeville, one of which satisfies the requirements of a $4 million DOE grant to design and deploy solar and battery storage technology within a microgrid.  The principal source of the solar PV generation for the microgrid is a public housing development in Bronzevillewhere approximately 1,900 rooftop solar panels will be installed. It will help power the property’s 17 buildings, including 660 residential units.

Dozens of metrics, from electrical system impacts to job creation and air quality, have been established for the microgrid project and they’ll be measured over a 10-year period. Outcomes will inform the continued evolution of the grid serving northern Illinois.   

Sparking the Interest of the Next Generation 

In February 2019, a new Community of the Future pilot launched with the installation of off-grid lighting units powered by a wind turbine, solar panel and battery at a Bronzeville high school and elementary school.  While increasing visibility at the schools and supporting safety goals, data collected from the solar and wind production and battery charging will be used to design student lessons related to environmental science and sustainability.

In 2018, the ComEd Ideathon invited high school students from Bronzeville to work with mentors and supplier partners to learn more about microprocessor-based technology as well as create solutions that can improve the community.  Teams from 12 high schools participated in the five-month competition. The winners developed a sensor-based solution to help prevent accidents when emergency vehicles travel through busy urban intersections. This was just one of dozens of great ideas that came from young people ages 16-18 who are passionate about improving their community and eager to learn about the enabling technology. 

Technology has an important role to play in modernizing antiquated infrastructure while also providing ways to elevate the community. Thanks to the partnerships created between public, private and educational sectors, great strides have been made in Chicago which can serve as a learning and living lab for the rest of the country 

Contributed by:

Shay Bahramirad, Vice President, Engineering and Smart Grid, ComEd

Sandor Williams, Manager, Smart grid and Technology, ComEd

Aleksi Paaso, Director, Distribution Planning, Smart Grid and Innovation, ComEd

Chelsea Collier