Credit: Yusuke Kawasaki / Creative Commons

Construction is underway on a plan to turn Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood into a ‘smart-tech innovation district.’

Two years after an ambitious clean energy campaign was announced for a South Side Chicago neighborhood, construction is moving forward on a clustered microgrid, a solar energy project at an affordable housing complex and a university-led clean tech center.

In 2016, the nonprofit Community Development Partnership announced a campaign to turn the Bronzeville neighborhood into a sustainable destination hub. The aim is to boost tourism and develop local black-owned businesses by partnering  with ComEd, Illinois Institute of Technology, and other clean energy businesses.

ComEd’s microgrid, which faced criticism over costs from the Illinois attorney general, will help form the first utility-scale clustered microgrid in the country with help from the Illinois Institute of Technology. A sun-tracking “smartflower” at the Renaissance Collaborative, an affordable housing center in Bronzeville, is awaiting an installation permit.

Also, the Community Development Partnership is providing input on  redevelopment plans at the old lakefront site of Michael Reese Hospital, a decade-long project expected to create 24,000 jobs and generate more than $520 million in property taxes and $164 million in sales taxes. The site in Bronzeville is being repurposed as a transportation logistics center with potential commercial tech space.

For Paula Robinson, who leads the Community Development Partnership, the work of turning Bronzeville into a center of clean energy technology is all about building on the rich history of the neighborhood.

“At this point, we have all these components and pieces coming together,” Robinson said. “We have stepped out to show that Bronzeville will be Chicago’s smart-tech innovation district.”

She sees her work in clean energy as building on the legacy of the neighborhood.

“We are definitely on this journey together,” she said of the community. “We’ve been talking about the neighborhood as a black metropolis, a National Heritage Area.”

During much of the 20th Century, Bronzeville was a center of African American culture and business in Chicago during an era when redlining and other government policies kept black residents from accessing all neighborhoods.

At a recent event updating the community on the campaign, Howard Tullman, director of IIT’s new innovation institute, shared a vision for the Kaplan Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center, a facility that will be completed this fall and will be the site of classes, workshops, and collaborations between technology professionals, students, and faculty.

“We are the only tech-centric university in the city, and we are really in the heart of the city,” Tullman said. “Building this project here was really important because we are going to be training people for careers that don’t exist yet, using technology that we will invent here. It will address problems that we think we understand, but also problems that we don’t yet know.”

Microgrid moves forward

For ComEd, the Bronzeville project is partly about leveraging smart grid infrastructure that has been built throughout the region since 2012. ComEd president and chief operating officer Terence Donnelly wrote last month that Bronzeville has undergone “one of the most robust grid modernizations programs in the nation.”

He added ComEd is “intent on building upon the strength of the stronger, more flexible smart grid platform that has dramatically enhanced reliability and customer satisfaction.”

In late June, the utility broke ground and began laying conduit that will eventually connect the microgrid to the ComEd system. The Illinois Commerce Commission approved the $25 million project in February following criticism from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office that it was too costly for ratepayers.

ComEd and clean energy groups argued the microgrid is an important, real-world look into the benefits integrating two microgrids. The utility developed a custom software so its new microgrid will be able to communicate with the existing microgrid at IIT. The goal is to optimize the use of clean energy resources in Bronzeville, while improving efficiency and resiliency.

During emergencies and outages, clustering the microgrids will help to identify the critical load, according to Mohammad Shahidehpour, a chairman in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department of IIT.

By clustering, we can island the microgrid on the campus,” he said. “By islanding it, we are in charge of our destiny. We can find out what is critical and can keep it on.”  

Kevin has written for Midwest Energy News since May of 2017. His work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Chicago Reporter, Chicago Reader, and on NPR’s Latino USA, among other outlets.