Senior Vice President Of Technical Services M. Michelle Blaise Discusses The Project’s Significance In A Time Of Rapid Change.
Chicago’s Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) is leading the way in revolutionizing energy delivery alongside Siemens and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), with the establishment of the Bronzeville Microgrid cluster.
Microgrids – which are generally small power grids with defined boundaries – have historically been used by universities, military bases and other institutions to provide back-up energy. Bronzeville, however, is the first utility-operated system in the US.
The utility will evaluate the microgrid project in terms of energy system and critical infrastructure resilience, as well as its effects on the community itself.
One of the key people behind the project is ComEd’s Senior Vice President of Technical Services, M. Michelle Blaise. In her role, Blaise is responsible for engineering, project management and smart grid & technology for the utility which delivers electricity to approximately 3.8 million residential and business customers across northern Illinois.
Icons of Infrastructure spoke with Blaise about the origin of the project, its impact on the Bronzeville neighborhood, and its significance in an industry beset by rapid change.
IoI: The Bronzeville Microgrid cluster has been described as a “living lab”. Can you tell me how the success of the project will be evaluated?
M. Michelle Blaise: The first thing I would say is the concept of the cluster is that you have two microgrids that can share generation resources. The first step was building the microgrid controller and showing it can work. We did that. We were successful in modeling, designing, programming and testing it. The brains work. Now, we’re building the physical infrastructure for the community microgrid. That includes solar PV, battery storage and other grid infrastructure that will support the microgrid and that we can tie the controller to.
We’re currently in the construction phase of building the physical infrastructure. Our target completion date is the end of 2018, and we are on schedule. The PV is being installed; the infrastructure for storage is in development. The electric infrastructure cables and lines which connect all the pieces is on target. We begin the testing mode of the project in the first quarter of 2019.
In terms of the criteria, there are over 300 different tests which are required by the US Department of Energy grant for the project. Those include showing that the controller is able to pick up loads, and simulating dropping parts of the system to see if the microgrid can pick up those loads.
One of deliverables is specific metrics. By this, we’re talking about tests which go beyond the basic electrical infrastructure into how the microgrid contributes to community development by creating new jobs and new skillsets for people in the community. We are developing a set of metrics beyond turning the lights on and off, and looking at the holistic benefits to the community.
“WE EXPECT TO SHOW THAT THE MICROGRID IS BROADER MORE THAN A PHYSICAL SYSTEM.”
— M. MICHELLE BLAISE, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT OF TECHNICAL SERVICES, COMMONWEALTH EDISON
IoI: Following from the above: Can you tell me what you expect to find based on any preliminary qualitative and quantitative analysis?
Blaise: Quantitatively, we’ve learned about what it takes to physically construct something like this in a certain area. Qualitatively, we’ve learned a lot about partnerships with the community, thought leaders in academia and commercial partners. That includes the value of listening carefully to many diverse perspectives, effective collaboration and being responsive to stakeholder needs. Much of that learning a lot for each other is new to all of us, and we’re learning together.
We expect to show that the microgrid is more than a physical system. That’s one of the reasons why we’re developing non-traditional metrics to recognize this additional value.
IoI: Are solar and wind the only renewable energy sources ComEd is looking to incorporate? What about water and/or thermal? Why or why not?
Blaise: Part of the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) order approving the project asked us to look at more renewables in the microgrid. We are currently studying other generation sources, additional solar and batteries. We have to date done some analysis on other sources, but nothing has been finalized. The forthcoming RFP for generation for the second phase of the microgrid considers different types of generation and encourages renewables.
IoI: Why was Bronzeville selected for the microgrid project when four other potential projects are included in the state legislature’s Next Generation Energy Plan?
Blaise: Part of it had to do with Bronzeville being a very vibrant community in Chicago. We identified 10 customers within the microgrid footprint that provide critical public services, including the headquarters of the Chicago fire and police departments. ComEd had been working with several committee groups on new tech efforts, and had been in discussions on how we could collaborate with them. We received a grant from the DOE to partner with IIT on the construction of a microgrid controller that would enable two or more clustered microgrids to share resources. It is a new concept and a new technology that could only be demonstrated near the existing IIT microgrid. ComEd received a second DOE grant to demonstrate how to incorporate renewables into the microgrid. It all made perfect sense and came together. We would be able to build, test our controller while working with the community to build upon the technology.
IoI: How specifically does the Bronzeville microgrid project build on ComEd’s existing smart grid platform?
Blaise: The smart grid relies on a network of smart meters. Part of that network is a communication network we built to help transmit data. We also deployed smart switches that reroute power around problem areas as needed.
We use that communication network and smart meter data to understand loads in the microgrid. There is more information about loading at different times, which is critical to designing control mechanisms. Smart switches that reroute power and make the grid more automated enables the microgrid system to work, and also enables us isolate sections of the grid.
We have been working with a group of thought leaders on an advisory council, which we formed to exchange ideas related to how the community can use technology for its advancement. For example, the council had an idea about a mobility pilot for residents who depend on public transportation. We have been testing electric vehicles that take seniors where they need to go if a bus can’t get them there.
Through the pilot, ComEd is learning about electric vehicles and their impact on the grid. At the same time, we are reducing carbon emissions and conducting an experiment on mobility. ComEd will also install and test cyber-secure extreme-fast charging technology, and support installation of electric vehicle charging stations serving multi-unit dwellings and curbside residential charging in Bronzeville.
IoI: What lessons can municipalities and local communities glean from the Bronzeville project?
Blaise: There are a couple of lessons that relate to renewables, such as how to integrate them directly into the grid. We expect we’ll see more growth of solar and other distributed generation resources, as well as greater energy efficiency. The Bronzeville project will provide information on how we can leverage our capability to build a more resilient and connected system. That’s the value this project brings to other communities.
ComEd President and COO Terence Donnelly in a December 6 webinar on the Bronzeville microgrid talked about the community of the future. The mobility pilot I referenced is just one example of how we are going beyond technology to invest in future innovators in the community. We’ve done “Ideathon” competitions at local high schools, and asked students to come up with ideas on how to solve problems in their community. The Ideathon culminates with a “Shark Tank” event in which students present ideas to business leaders as well. You can see a great deal of excitement among the students about learning and being coached by ComEd engineers. The students are learning about tech and innovation and working with mentors from ComEd.
IoI: Can you speak about the project’s replicability?
Blaise: One of the key outcomes of the work we’re doing is learning how to replicate it, which is particularly important when you’re building something like the Bronzeville community microgrid. One of the key lessons that we learned early on is that you have to engage the community. You’re not going in and telling them what you’re doing for them, but partnering with the community to make this expandable. The community has to be engaged in order to understand what they need and what their vision is. We facilitate that vision with implementation. That’s the key to replicating the microgrid elsewhere.
ComEd, is a unit of Chicago-based Exelon Corporation.