Commonwealth Edison recently unveiled a plan to build its first “community of the future” in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago.

At the heart of the project is a microgrid to be built and owned by ComEd that would be able to island and cluster with a nearby microgrid owned by the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).

The utility envisions clusters of 10-megawatt microgrids providing service to critical infrastructure and surrounding communities in case of emergencies. Bronzeville has a large police precinct, hospital and a range of residential customers, many of them in lower income brackets.

In conjunction with the city and federal authorities such as FEMA, ComEd has identified locations across the greater Chicago region where microgrids would make the most sense for resiliency. Bronzeville was a natural starting point because of its proximity to IIT, and the neighborhood already has advanced metering infrastructure and smart switches.

ComEd already has two grants to support the microgrid from the U.S. Department of Energy. The first is worth $1.2 million for a microgrid master controller, which will connect IIT’s grid with the one in Bronzeville. DOE's SunShot Initiative is also providing $4 million for 750 kilowatts of solar and battery storage capacity for the Bronzeville microgrid.

The microcontroller project was also developed by Argonne National Laboratory and S&C Electric. The controller will be completed and tested this year. The goal is for the microgrid to look like a self-contained node to the grid operators, but for the two microgrids to be able to communicate with each other to balance load and generation, especially in island mode.

One challenge is that much of the ComEd distribution system in Bronzeville is radial, lacking the redundancy of a looped system that might be better suited for a microgrid. “But we’ll get there with the technology,” said Joe Svachula, VP of engineering and smart grid at ComEd.

ComEd hopes the microgrid demonstration project in Bronzeville will serve as a blueprint for other utility-owned microgrids around the country. But to fund the microgrid as it is planned, ComEd will need the Illinois legislature to pass its Future Energy Plan bill, which was proposed last year.

The bill would provide $300 million for six microgrids and include a move to time-of-use pricing for all residential customers. “Without the legislation, we will still build something,” said Svachula. The proposed legislation would be cost-neutral for customers over a decade, according to ComEd.

Svachula noted that customers are already seeing some savings after being charged for the $2.6 billion smart grid plan that was approved in 2012.

The past three years were ComEd’s most reliable years in its history. The utility has had nearly 6 million avoided interruptions since 2012, mostly due to automated switches on the distribution line that can contain outages. Fewer outages and fewer truck rolls result in a combined savings of nearly $67 million, said Svachula, which will be passed back to customers.

ComEd still needs to deploy about half of its 4 million smart meters, which should bring additional benefits in detecting outages and avoiding truck rolls.

Many microgrids are owned by universities or public institutions, but some utilities are looking for opportunities to own or co-own microgrids. Arizona Public Service will build a microgrid in north Phoenix to support a local data center. APS is also building a 25-megawatt microgrid for the Marine Corps in Yuma. Similarly, Georgia Power owns the generation for the 160-megawatt microgrid on Robins Air Force Base.

Even if the Bronzeville microgrid project is not fully realized, ComEd is looking at other ways to layer applications on top of its grid investment. The utility used its mesh network from Silver Spring Networks to link 800 ComEd-owned streetlights with light-emitting diode fixtures.

The pilots have been a success, and the utility plans another 17,500 LED streetlights that it is describing as “smart-ready.” They will be equipped with networking functionality that won’t be activated at the time of installation.

Svachula said the utility is still evaluating the business case for helping municipalities invest in the lights. Potential applications, such as cameras for parking apps, are just emerging. ComEd hopes to test them out in Bronzeville as the utility tries to prove that it can build the community of the future.

That future, however, is still awaiting funding.