History of Energy in Illinois Starts and Ends with Renewables-Based Microgrids

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Back in the 1890s, Samuel Insull, the founder of Commonwealth Edison, began providing energy in Illinois with renewables-based microgrids. More than a century later, Illinois is once again embracing renewables-based microgrids, with a handful of the most innovative microgrids now being developed and launched in Chicago.

That was the engaging tale told by Brien Sheahan, chairman and CEO, Illinois Commerce Commission, during the keynote speech for Microgrid 2018 on Tuesday.

“The history starts and ends with microgrids,” he said.

Kicking off the second day of the three-day event, Sheahan described how Insull created a partnership between a railway and utility that both owned microgids.

“They bought power from each other and provided backup reserve power to each other,” he said. “Until the 1960s, there was a small patchwork of utilities and microgrids. Almost 120 years later, the industry is engaged in an eeerily similar discussion…Illinois is at the forefront of this old and new discussion.”

Ameren has built an advanced microgrid that is the first to operate at utility-scale voltage, he said. Sheahan also described ComEd’s Bronzeville microgrid project, saying it will allow for study of how microgrids support the integration of renewable energy into the grid. “It will create the first utility-scale cluster of microgrids in the nation,” he said.

Addressing the need for utilities to embrace change, Sheahan sprinkled in quotes and ideas from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

“Culturally and organizationally, utilities need to adapt and change so microgrids can flourish,” he said.

Balkanized utilities restrict flexibility and make it difficult to deliver what customers want, he said.

Utilities will become providers of plug-and-play transactive services. But they first have to evolve away from “fortressed monopolies with high walls to customer-oriented companies that embrace new technologies.”

Microgrids in the fabric of the community

Meanwhile, during a leadership plenary panel, “The Future of Energy Wealth, Health and Security on a Decentralized Grid,” industry members said that society is driving the move toward microgrids — rather than microgrids affecting society. However, the industry needs new tools for managing microgrids and must address cybersecurity issues, the panelists said.

Jason Handley, director, smart grid technology and operations at Duke Energy, said that the company has been working on using decision-making assets at the grid’s edge to reduce latency on the grid.

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“We realized we need more interoperability. We started the Coalition of the Willing, asking the industry to change and provide us with open source solutions.”

While the company had been told this effort was too expensive, within six months six companies had equipment talking at grid edge, he said. That led to 25 companies working together to build a microgrid with interoperable parts. It has been online for three years.

“We will need more advanced tools than we have today — planning and operating tools. All this work involves getting intelligence out to the grid edge to make faster decisions,” he said. Collaboration will be needed to create these faster tools, Handley said.

Val Jensen, senior vice president, customer operations for Commonwealth Edison, described the goals and advantages of the Bronzeville microgrid project.

“We’re trying to create a confederation of small community-based systems where the utility provides orchestration.” The project aims to provide a peer-to-peer transactive platform for selling climate attributes to businesses, he said.

“We’re trying to understand how this microgird can fit into the fabric of the community and meet economic development and climate justice goals,” he said.

The panelists agreed that customers are seeking more control.

“Customers want choice and microgrids will provide that,” said Lee Krevat, director of new ventures, PXiSE Energy Solutions, Sempra Renewables.

The panelists all said that cyber security is a big risk for both the main grid and microgrids, and the issue needs to be addressed soon.

“I feel like this is one of the greatest problems — the art of identifying what can hurt you the most. I feel like we have to stop everything else and attend to this,” said Jensen.

Krevat pointed out that microgrids can be helpful if the grid is attacked; they can keep operating.

All the panelists agreed with Sheahan’s message about the need to move away from old-style, conservative utilities.

As Sheahan said, “Times are changing. Digital resources, transactive energy, and customer preference will profoundly change this industry. And microgrids have the potential to be part of that change.”

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