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Community Microgrids

Eunice Chung

Microgrids have been around for a while—ever since Thomas Edison invented the first prototype in 1882, these multifaceted networks continue to be a critical source of sustained energy production and distribution. Recently, renewable, community-scale microgrids have gained traction within the energy industry, marking a shift from remote, centralized power plants to local, decentralized generation.

Here are some examples of successful community microgrids today:

Bronzeville Smart Microgrid

Multi-story apartment buildings with solar photovoltaic panels located in a dense urban neighborhood
Credit: ComEd
  • Location: Chicago, IL 
  • Construction: 2018-2019 
  • Led by: Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) 
  • Reasons for microgrid: Severe storms 
  • # of people served: About 1,060 residential, commercial & industrial customers

Located in the South Side neighborhood of Chicago, the Bronzeville smart microgrid is the first of its kind to operate within an urban metropolitan area. Unlike stand-alone microgrids, the Bronzeville model tests the hypothesis of microgrid clusters, or a grid of microgrids: it is connected to and shares power with a microgrid at the nearby Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). This resilient, 7-megawatt microgrid also optimizes solar energy; even when the microgrid is in island mode (e.g., it is disconnected from the local electricity distribution network), the solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and microgrid storage are able to run smoothly, continuing to provide self-generated energy to the South Side residents.

Reynolds Landing Neighborhood

Aerial view of the Reynolds Landing Neighborhood in Hoover, Alabama
Credit: GreenTech Media
  • Location: Hoover, AL
  • Construction: 2017-2018
  • Led by: Southern Company, Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)
  • Reasons for microgrid: Tornadoes
  • # of people served: 62 homes

Based outside of Birmingham, AL, the Reynolds Landing smart neighborhood is entirely powered by a communal microgrid—the first microgrid in the Southeast and one of very few community-scale models in the world. Each home is outfitted with multiple energy-efficient features—including an air-tight building envelope, smart thermostats, controllable heat pump water heaters, and air-source heat pumps for space conditioning—and are 35 percent more energy-efficient than standard Alabama residences. The 5-acre microgrid, which is composed of a solar photovoltaic (PV) array, battery storage system, and natural gas generator, can operate under cloudy weather conditions and during grid outages, both planned and unplanned.

Blue Lake Rancheria Microgrid

Blue Lake Rancheria Microgrid in Humboldt County, California
Credit: Blue Lake Rancheria
  • Location: Humboldt County, CA
  • Construction: May – November 2016
  • Led by: Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe, Humboldt State University, Schatz Energy Research Center (SERC)
  • Reasons for microgrid: Heavy rainstorms, Northern California wildfires, PG&E shutoffs
  • # of people served: Unspecified 

Situated 300 miles north of San Francisco, this microgrid serves the Blue Lake Rancheria, a federally recognized Native American Tribe. The BLR microgrid generates renewable energy that allows the reservation to either operate with, or independently of, the main utility grid; even during the Fall 2019 PG&E shutoffs, the microgrid continued to power the reservation’s hotel, casino, offices, and medical center, whose patients depended on steady electricity to fuel their medical devices. Furthermore, the microgrid has generated roughly $150,000 in annual energy savings for the Tribe, reduced at least 150 tons of carbon/year, and increased the total number of clean energy jobs in the area by ten percent. Talk about making a positive impact!

Jasper Community

Jasper Community in Prescott, Arizona
Credit: GreenTech Media
  • Location: Prescott, AZ
  • Construction: 2018 – 2020
  • Led by: Mandalay Homes, Sonnen GmbH
  • Reasons for microgrid: To redefine standard home production in the U.S. using clean energy technology
  • # of people served: 2,900 homes

Although the Jasper community isn’t technically a microgrid, it includes elements of community and renewable energy. Spearheaded by Sonnen, a German energy storage company, the 2,900 homes in Jasper are virtually connected to form an intelligent network of clean energy storage systems. This European-based model allows the community to operate as a Virtual Power Plant (VPP) that is integrated with the larger Arizona Public Service electric grid. Each home has a smart battery that absorbs excess solar energy during the day; the battery then calibrates and releases the energy in the evening, when the sun is no longer out, to meet the unique energy demands of each home balanced with the demand on the main utility grid.

Microgrids are slowly emerging as an alternative solution to the world’s energy needs. While the design and implementation of the basic microgrid model may vary from place to place, this framework helps pave the way for a cleaner, more resilient future.

Diagram comparing the location, land use, construction, and ownership-related characteristics of the EcoBlock microgrid with the Bronzeville, Reynolds Landing, Blue Lake Rancheria, and Jasper Community microgrid projects

Cover image credit: Haixin Guo

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