EDITOR’S NOTE: Commonwealth Edison is the host utility for the landmark Empowering Customers & Cities event November 4-6. The event will explore new business models for utilities as well as new ways of serving customers, including the rollout of microgrids, the subject of this two-part series. Next week: Getting Strategic with Microgrid Deployments.
The electric utility industry is in the middle of an unmatched evolution driven by a combination of emerging new technologies, regulatory mandates and economic incentives. Utilities must provide a secure, resilient supply of electricity to consumers. In tension with this goal is an unprecedented increase of operational uncertainties resulting from the use of renewables and other distributed generation. This all makes the case for revisiting the traditional utility business model with an eye toward embracing and leveraging new technologies.
Commonwealth Edison, the electric utility serving the greater Chicago area and northern Illinois, U.S., is taking a proactive approach to address these emerging challenges while ensuring a sustainable and viable future for energy in Illinois. ComEd’s proposal for Illinois’ energy future, which it recently submitted to the Illinois General Assembly, focuses on eight timely and important enablers:
• Expanding energy efficiency to voltage optimization
• Promoting solar power for communities
• Implementing demand-response facilitation services
• Creating rate design modifications to enable equitable cost allocation
• Allocating additional financial assistance for customers in need
• Supporting transportation electrification by installing public electric vehicle charging stations
• Enhancing renewable portfolio standards
• Developing a microgrid pilot program.
The microgrid proposal, in particular, is a ground-breaking utility-initiated program that aims to address the security and resiliency of the electric supply to the critical infrastructure within ComEd’s service territory. Microgrids represent an exemplary utility-of-the-future solution by using state-of-the-art technologies to address multiple performance and design objectives including resiliency, efficiency,
sustainability, reliability, power quality and integration of distributed energy resources.
The integration of microgrids can increase grid efficiency through peak demand reduction and reduced losses in transmission and distribution systems. Microgrids also can be used to provide ancillary services to improve grid operations and power quality to facilities that require high-standard services. The addition of renewable generation in microgrids can assist utilities in meeting mandated renewable portfolio standards.
But perhaps the most important application of microgrids is the potential ability to reduce vulnerabilities to extreme weather events as well as to physical and cyber attacks. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the nation loses between $18 and $33 billion annually as a result of power outages. With the increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events, strategically placed microgrids could provide an added level of resiliency to the critical infrastructure.
For the proposed microgrid implementations, ComEd would adhere to the DOE’s microgrid definition: “A microgrid is a group of interconnected loads and DERs within clearly defined electrical boundaries that acts as a single controllable entity with respect to the grid and that connects and disconnects from such grid to enable it to operate in both grid-connected and islanded modes.”
In line with this definition, ComEd would require its microgrids to include multiple loads and generation resources, operate as part of the grid and separate from the grid, and be controlled by a centralized microgrid controller. For the DER installations within the microgrids, ComEd is considering combined heat and power, fuel cells, energy storage systems, photovoltaics and diesel generation.
Microgrids, in addition to improving security and resiliency, can help to revitalize the economies of areas where they will be deployed. The microgrid pilot program is envisioned to attract businesses to maximize job creation. The investments in these technologies not only create jobs but also increase the economic stability in the areas where they are installed. As microgrids provide stable, secure, resilient and reliable electric supply, they provide a great environment for advanced manufacturing and research, which are often sensitive to grid disturbances and outages. A good example of how the pilot program provides value to local economies is how it adds operational reliability to transportation infrastructure during an extreme event.
Aleksi Paaso is a senior smart grid specialist with ComEd smart grid and technology. Shay Bahramirad is director of smart grid and technology at ComEd and an adjunct professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Henry Pierce is in the smart grid and technology department at ComEd. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of ComEd.