Illinois utility regulators have asked the state’s biggest utility to explore how it can expand the use of microgrids beyond their traditional boundaries, to include multiple customers and greater use of clean energy resources. 

These are some of the long-range innovations described in Wednesday’s decision by the Illinois Commerce Commission to approve Commonwealth Edison’s Bronzeville microgrid project. The long-planned $25 million project, backed by $5 million in Department of Energy grants, will integrate with a nearby independently built microgrid at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and has been a central part of ComEd’s plans for integrating distributed energy resources across its territory. 

“By connecting with the IIT microgrid, we’ll learn how to integrate microgrids with renewable energy resources and how to maximize the value of the interaction between two microgrids," said Joe Svachula, vice president of engineering and smart grid technology at ComEd. "It’s an important step forward in our effort to develop a more secure, resilient and reliable distribution system in the future.”

State legislation introduced in 2016 initially called for as much as $250 million for ComEd and $60 million for utility Ameren for a series of microgrids in the state. But this measure was stripped from the bill in late 2016, leaving only the Bronzeville project. Even this funding came under fire from the Illinois attorney general for costing ratepayers too much -- although Wednesday’s decision does allow the utility to rate-base the $25 million in costs. 

In response to parties like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Citizens Utility Board, the commission and ComEd have also significantly altered the original plans for Bronzeville to expand access to third parties and clean energy alternatives. Wednesday’s decision, for instance, will open competitive bids for distributed energy resources to serve its generation needs, and rely as much as possible on solar, energy storage and other alternatives to standby diesel-fueled generators. 

It will also start a process to design a “microgrid services tariff” that will allow third parties to band together to create their own kinds of microgrids. Unlike most, if not all, of the self-powered, islanding-capable microgrids out there, this tariff won’t be limited to individual behind-the-meter implementations, Christie Hicks, EDF’s manager of clean energy regulatory implementation, said in a Wednesday interview. 

Instead, it would “enable customers to request the use of and assistance from ComEd to overlay a microgrid on the existing utility infrastructure,” she said. “This opens up many possibilities for multiple customers. It could be any size; it could provide any number of services; it could allow customers to use as much or as little distributed generation resources as they see fit.” 

In this model, ComEd would be intimately involved in the microgrid design and implementation, starting with feasibility studies of different areas to determine the potential benefits and adverse impacts, she said. It will also provide a “master controller” capability to ensure each microgrid can island from the grid when there’s a power outage, and provide grid services when the power’s up and running, she added. That platform is being developed via DOE grants by Argonne National Laboratory, S&C Electric, OSIsoft, Quanta Technology, Alstom and others.

This concept could help remove some of the key ownership and responsibility barriers between utilities and third parties that have stood in the way of more expansive microgrid projects. These range from the simple issues, such as allowing access to utility rights-of-way that separate buildings across the street from each other, to complex ones, such as how to apportion risk and responsibility for safety and reliability across shared equipment. 

These same challenges render the process of coming up with a tariff a complicated task, although the Illinois Commerce Commission has given the parties involved plenty of time. A final decision on any tariff that ultimately emerges won’t be due until 2020. 

“Obviously, there are a lot of specifics to be worked out,” Hicks said. “What we have is a commitment to develop and file a tariff, and then that tariff has to be approved.” 

Colleen Metelitsa, GTM Research grid edge analyst, noted that the idea of a microgrid tariff isn’t new to Illinois. In January, Hawaii introduced a law that would direct the Public Utilities Commission to establish a microgrid services tariff to “encourage and facilitate the development and use of energy resilient microgrids,” she noted, although this too is just in the early stages. 

In Massachusetts, National Grid has also discussed the concept of operating microgrids based on a tariff that would incorporate multiple values, she said. These include the services of providing underground microgrid wiring, purchasing distributed energy on behalf of customers, acting as a grid operator of sorts for distributed energy (the “master controller” or distributed energy resource management portion of the service), and handling microgrid billing. 

New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision initiative is also pushing the state to look at how the multiple microgrids being designed under its NY Prize competition can be integrated across utility-customer boundaries, she noted. Because the $50 million or so being handed out by the prize only covers feasibility studies and design, not implementation, finding some form of tariff structure for them is likely to see some movement in the state, “as these projects go through the design phase and more questions come up on what revenue streams are available for microgrids," Metelitsa said.

As for the larger issues of how to share infrastructure, energy and real-world responsibility between microgrids and utilities, “We haven't seen a lot of these questions being asked before, because most microgrids were for one stakeholder, such as the military, a university, or a commercial customer,” she added. “As community microgrids actually start being built, there is a question about the value derived from being a direct versus indirect beneficiary of the microgrid and how that should impact rates, especially for residential communities.” 


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