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Judge Says Illinois Should Approve ComEd’s Bronzeville Microgrid

By: Alex Ruppenthal |

ComEd should be allowed to proceed with plans to build a first-of-its-kind microgrid in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, a state legal authority said this week.

In a proposed order filed Wednesday, Illinois Commerce Commission Administrative Law Judge Jessica L. Cardoni recommended that ICC’s board sign off on the utility company’s planned $29.6 million microgrid that would serve as a pilot for similar projects nationwide.

Microgrids are small, independent power grids that can be connected to the main electrical grid but are able to operate independent of it in the case of a natural disaster or other emergency. The grids are a main example of how new technology has enabled the use of power in smarter, more efficient ways to relieve stress off the main electrical grid and create fail-safes for when an area loses power.

Although there is widespread interest in learning more about microgrids, stakeholders – including those in the Bronzeville case – disagree about how they should be developed.

In its petition to the ICC, ComEd said its project would improve understanding of the benefits, design, operation and integration of microgrids, while also benefiting more than 1,000 residential and commercial customers in a roughly one-fourth of a square mile in Bronzeville.

But the project has drawn criticism from environmental and consumer advocates who raised concerns about its location and reliance on natural gas and diesel, along with ComEd’s initial plan to own the electricity generated from the microgrid. (ComEd later agreed to take bids for or lease the power to third-party groups.)

“We’re disappointed [by the judge’s order] because we think ComEd could have done a microgrid in a much different way that would have produced greater benefits,” said Robert Kelter, a senior attorney with the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center’s Energy Efficiency Program. “It’s not that we don’t think microgrids are a good idea, but they have to be used strategically.”

Kelter said ComEd should have picked a location in greater need of reliable power that also offers essential resources, ensuring they are available in the event that the main power grid goes down.

“You put a microgrid in a place where you have a big supermarket and gas stations and banks so that people from the outside area who don’t have power can come in and get necessary services,” he said. “And the area that they chose just doesn’t have enough of those important elements.”

Another concern is how much influence a commercial utility, such as ComEd, should have in developing a microgrid, said David Kolata, executive director of the Chicago-based Citizens Utility Board.

“There’s a real question here about trying to find the right balance between what the utilities should do and what third parties should do and what are the most cost-effective options [for residents],” he said. “Inherent in the [project] is the possibility that we find out that it doesn’t make sense. That’s always a risk. What you want to do is make sure we get the best bang for your buck and that we test it in the right kind of way.”

Opposition to the project has also come from the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, which asked the ICC to reject ComEd’s proposal. The AG’s office said the microgrid would benefit only a small number of residents and businesses but would in effect be paid for by all of ComEd’s nearly 4 million customers across northern Illinois.

“We’re hoping that the commission will take its own fresh look at this and reach a different conclusion [about the project],” Kelter said.

ComEd did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the judge’s order and concerns raised by advocacy groups.

If approved, $4 million of the nearly $30 million project would come from a U.S. Department of Energy grant.

The proposed microgrid would have the ability to link with an existing microgrid at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which Kolata said would make it the first project in North America involving two microgrids linked together.

ICC’s five-member board has until Feb. 28 to rule on the proposal.