by Jillian Melero, Dec. 19, 2018 –

Bronzeville, the South Side home of Chicago’s Black Renaissance and the birthplace of Black History Month, hopes to launch its next Golden Age with support from a smart microgrid being installed by utility ComEd. The microgrid will tap green energy to help power the community.

Once completed in 2019, the grid will have a load or active consumption capacity of 7 megawatts, installed over two phases with the energy generated from its own resources including solar panels.

That’s enough generating capacity for the grid to serve approximately 1,060 residential, commercial, and industrial customers. Previous microgrids have served military bases or hospitals and the Illinois Institute of Technology operates on one as well. But the Bronzeville and IIT microgrid cluster will be the first of its kind to serve a community within a metropolitan area, giving the community a more resilient power grid to help withstand outages.

Representatives from ComEd, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and Siemens Digital Grid North America held a conference Dec. 4 to discuss the microgrid coming to Bronzeville.

“We have a microgrid in place at the university that was started in 2008. We completed the project in 2013 and it has saved the university about a million dollars annually,” Mohammad Shahidehpour, director of the Robert W. Galvin Center for Electricity Initiative at IIT said.“In case of an emergency, we will be able to island the campus. And run the entire university as an islanded operation. So, even if there is a major outage in the neighborhood, in the area, in the vicinity of the university, the university campus will remain in operation.”

Mohammad Shahidehpour, director of the Robert W. Galvin Center for Electricity Initiative at Illinois Tech lays out the the energy innovations at work in the Bronzeville and IIT microgrid cluster at a Dec. 4 conference. (Jillian Melero/Medill Reports)

A microgrid is a smaller power grid that can operate independently, drawing on its own power sources, in this case relying on solar power and solar batteries to serve customers within the area. It can still be connected to the larger electric grid where it can draw or supply energy as needed. The Bronzeville project will connect with an existing microgrid at IIT. Some benefits of microgrids, especially newer smart grids such as the one in Bronzeville, include fewer and shorter power outages, improved monitoring of power usage and, in this case, the use of renewable resources and production of clean energy.

For the next 10 years, Bronzeville will serve as a testing ground. In addition to undergoing a cost-benefit analysis, the microgrid cluster will be evaluated on more than 55 different metrics, including resilience, according to ComEd President and CEO Terence Donnelly.

ComEd President and CEO Terence Donnelly discusses the metrics involved in evaluating the cost and benefits of the Bronzeville microgrid. Chicago, IL. Dec. 4, 2018. (Jillian Melero/Medill Reports)

“How do you measure resilience? It’s more than reliability. It’s more about hardening. It’s more about surviving storms, cyber-attacks, things like that. But we’ve worked with our stakeholders and the [Illinois Commerce Commission] to develop a model of resiliency that we’re looking to measure in Bronzeville,” Donnelly said.

Three aspects of resilience that Donnelly said will be examined are energy system resilience, measuring energy performance and resilience to threats; community resilience, measuring the impacts the project has on the community of Bronzeville; and critical infrastructure resilience, measuring the ability of systems like transportation and communication to withstand and recover from disruptions.

A storm in November with heavy snow and high winds caused power outages for more than 300,000 ComEd customers.

“We haven’t seen an event like that since 1998. And without investing in smart grid over the last five years, this could have been much higher, and we could have seen outages [impacting] 500,000 to 600,000,” Donnelly said.

Over the course of 2011, before ComEd began modernizing its power grid, a total of 14 storms caused 2.8 million power outages. The average time to restore power for each customer was 366 minutes. In 2017, it took an average of 116 minutes to restore power, Crain’s Chicago Business reported. That year, 14 storms shut down power to 901,000 customers.

Questions of Cost

ComEd did not confirm whether the new technology and enhanced energy supply will increase or decrease utility bills for its customers.

“While we haven’t broken out the microgrid’s cost for each of ComEd’s 4 million customers, we know that microgrids have some positive economic impacts, including reducing costs associated with power outages; supporting economic growth, especially in the digital sector; and enabling valuable services to the grid and consumers, such as demand response, real-time pricing, day-ahead pricing, voltage and capacity support,” ComEd Director of Communications Paul Elsberg wrote in an email.

Data from the Department of Energy (DOE) projects that the cost of energy will continue to increase but that future increases will be more gradual post smart grid installation.

The Bronzeville microgrid project received funding from two grants from the Department of Energy (DOE). The first grant for $1.2 million was awarded in September, 2014 to develop and test the microgrid controller, the nerve center that will control the integrated microgrids of Bronzeville and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). The second grant of approximately $4 million was to study the integration of solar panels and batteries into the microgrid and requires a matching cost share of $4 million from ComEd and its university, laboratory, and technology partners, said ComEd Communications Director David O’Dowd.

The Illinois Commerce Commission approved a $25 million investment by ComEd in the microgrid project in February. Along with the $4 million grant from DOE, the total estimated cost for the microgrid as filed with the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) was $29 million.

The 2011 Electricity Infrastructure Modernization Act (EIMA) laid the groundwork for ComEd to implement annual rate increases to subsidize the estimated $2.6 billion for modernization of the power grid as a whole.

The utility raised its rates by 2.3 percent in June and was scheduled to issue another 8 percent increase in October. However, after a settlement negotiated by the ICC reallocated the cost of transmitting power across high voltage lines, ComEd customers saw the price of energy decrease instead, Crain’s reported. The lower pricing is locked in through May 2019.

Bronzeville, Community of the Future

Bronzeville’s smart grid is one step in a series of smart city developments in the works for the South Side neighborhood. ComEd’s projects include a “Save and Share” app to track energy usage; an electric vehicle mobility program, the ComEd Dash, that serves a seniors’ home in the area; and an energy storage initiative installing batteries for power storage as well as electric vehicle (EV charging stations). The initiative will also include a partnership with Aris Renewable Energy to install street lights outfitted with solar panels and wind turbines and “smart kiosks”, interactive digital displays in high-traffic areas that provide emergency alerts, maps and directions, news and other public information.

“We have a robust partnership with the Bronzeville community advisory council, that’s extremely active,” Donnelly said. “we have many initiatives there, for example, outreach around stem education, an energy academy, an Ideathon. Working with students over four years to expose them to these technologies to learn how to benefit the community.”

Paula Robinson addresses visitors to Bronzeville’s microgrid showcase and job fair, sponsored by ComEd, and held on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. (Courtesy ComEd)

In order to build, maintain, and develop new innovations for Bronzeville’s “Community of the Future,” ComEd and the Bronzeville community advisory group are developing education initiatives focused on STEM and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) programs in area high schools.

Twelve Bronzeville high schools participated in the partnerships first “Ideathon” in December of last year. High school students attending school in Bronzeville were partnered with college mentors and engineers from ComEd as well as Silver Springs Network, a provider of smart grid products, headquartered in San Jose, California; Accenture, a management and consulting company that works in digital technology, headquartered in Dublin; AECOM, an American engineering firm with multinational projects headquartered in Los Angeles; and others to innovate new products.
The 12 high schools were invited to participate after some feedback from Bronzeville’s Community Development Partnership.

“Initially ComEd said, ‘Well, we’ve got X number of science and math schools that might be interested in this type of Ideathon,’ but the community was like, ‘No, we want all the schools to be involved,’” said Paula Robinson, President of the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership. “There were 12 high schools, so all of the high schools were involved.”

Ashton Mitchell and Breshaiya Kelly of King College Preparatory High School showcase their winning innovation at ComEd’s 2017 Ideathon. (Courtesy ComEd)

Robinson said it is the community partnership’s place to push for a seat at the table, the same as any other stakeholder such as ComEd parent company Exelon, or technology partners Siemens and Lockheed Martin.

“There’s kind of a collaborative self-interest that’s going on here, and that’s a lot to navigate,” Robinson said. “That’s probably where ComEd gets a lot of engagement as well as grief from my organization because we are in some new territory. We are looking at opportunities where the community, beyond advising, can also be what we call innovators. Where we’re co-creating and innovating in this new space as well.”

Teams that made it to the final round pitched ideas to a panel of judges in the “Spark Tank.” King College Prep juniors Ashton Mitchell and Breshaiya Kelly won with their idea for a microprocessor designed to help prevent accidents when emergency vehicles travel through busy intersections.

The top three teams from King College Prep High School, Young Women’s Leadership Charter School and the De La Salle Institute received prizes of $2,000, $1,000, and $500, respectively.

In blue, the footprint of the Illinois Institute of Technology microgrid, completed in 2013. In red, the footprint of the Bronzeville microgrid, estimated for completion in 2019. The smart grid cluster will be the first of its kind, connecting a university, an urban community, and integrating solar power and battery storage.

The partnership hopes to boost Bronzeville’s economy infusing it with new green energy and smart technology jobs within the community, maintaining the microgrid, wind turbines, solar panels as well as developing new technologies. O’Dowd said the utility estimates that a 10 MW microgrid would create 50 jobs.

In September, ComEd hosted a microgrid showcase and job fair at the IIT campus to raise awareness about the microgrid project, how it might benefit the community, and to inform the community about job opportunities in the energy field and related industries. More than 50 employers participated and more than 200 people attended.

The microgrid area will run from 33rd Street to the North, 38th Street to the South, State Street to the West, and South Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Drive to the East. It will serve the Chicago Public Safety Headquarters, the De La Salle Institute, the Math & Science Academy, a library, a public works building, restaurants, health clinics, public transportation, educational centers and churches.

Photo at top: I-90, Bronzeville and the Illinois Institute of Technology on Chicago’s South Side.



By Laura Zomosa –

You have reached Sawyer Elementary School. Para español, oprima número dos.

Sidney Sawyer Elementary School sits nestled between Brighton Park and Gage Park, just outside of the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the South Side. On an unseasonably warm Tuesday in March, students from Laura Gluckman’s sixth grade science class took a field trip like no other.

The gaggle of 10-and-11-year-olds poured into Plant Chicago for a tour, an excited knot of kids learning about the organization’s circular economy. Plant Chicago makes its home in The Plant, a refurbished former meat packing warehouse turned living laboratory in a struggling neighborhood that once housed the sprawling Union Stockyards.

Closed Loop Labs at Plant Chicago create supervised, interactive projects for students on topics ranging from vermicomposting to aquaponics, like the system pictured here. Photo by Laura Zornosa / Medill.

The Plant and Plant Chicago exist in symbiosis: the former is the mammoth brick building itself. It houses more than 20 small food businesses organized by the latter, a nonprofit group focused on coordinating a closed loop cycle of material reuse.

Both entities are linked through Bubbly Dynamics, LLC, the urban industrial developer that in 2010 bought the old meat packing plant. Eight years later, part of Plant Chicago’s core mission is to offer all of its educational programming free to community residents in the 60609 Chicago zip code.      

Chavez Elementary falls within this area, as do Hamline Elementary and Hedges Elementary. Educators from these Chicago public schools, as well as Gluckman’s Sawyer Elementary, made up Plant Chicago’s Education Advisory Committee (EAC) last year. Including the surrounding community is top-priority for the non-profit, neck-and-neck with sustainable business strategies.

Plant Chicago pursues a circular economy in more ways than one. The organization centers itself on a closed-loop model of reuse, redefining the meaning of waste. The building’s 100,000 square feet aim to re-imagine every inch of waste from one tenant business into fuel for the next. But circularity, too, exists in the ebb and flow between organization and neighborhood.    

“We also look to them for advice,” said Plant Chicago Education Associate Stef Funk. “So if we’re interested in starting something, those are the first people we’ll talk to to make sure that what our intentions are are in line with the community.”

By the map, The Plant’s refurbished industrial shell falls within the official community area called New City in Chicago, on 46th Street near Racine Avenue on the South Side. At a hands-on level, however – where the vast majority of Plant Chicago’s happenings take place – the nonprofit works primarily with the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

Much like nearby Sidney Sawyer Elementary School, Back of the Yards is primarily (51 percent) Latinx, and like other Latinx, Chicago neighborhoods (Little Village, Pilsen) has built a strong backbone of community. The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC) strings together social vertebrae, bringing together residents and services such as those extended by Plant Chicago.         

“Pretty much anything that happens here,” said Funk, “they’re the first people to know about it, in the interest of allowing the community to take advantage of whatever resources we have.”

The Plant’s collaborative community of food businesses – 25 tenants ranging from Pleasant House bakery to the Whiner Beer Company – have plenty of resources to go around. Plant Chicago maintains close-knit bonds with both the BYNC and the local Peace and Education Coalition, both of which disperse information on the services it offers, from a monthly farmers market to jobs for area high school students.

The Whiner Beer Company promotes environmentally responsible brewing by recycling spent grain into new resources within The Plant’s net-zero energy business incubator. Photo by Laura Zornosa / Medill.

Its impacts trickle down to younger students as well. “A lot of my students’ families work really, really hard and are very innovative and very connected to food culture as well, within Mexican-American food culture and Latinx food culture,” Gluckmann said. “There are people who work at the Plant that identify as Latinx [with] a lot of bilingual programming… That’s really important.”

Aside from within educational programming, bilingual accessibility features heavily in The Plant’s new Packingtown Museum. A meat rail system remains intact on the ceiling, where animal carcasses once hung, awaiting processing. Just down the hall, The Plant has repurposed the pork smokers of the previous tenant, food processing company Peer Foods, into bathrooms.

The space itself whispers of the industrial past of The Jungle’s bygone era, Upton Sinclair’s expose about the stockyards. A discarded sheet of easel pad paper reads “Suggestions/Feedback: Let us know what you think about the Packingtown Museum!” An anonymous note suggests “Meat (or fake, preferably) hanging from the ceiling would be awesome!” to which someone has responded wholeheartedly, “I agree!”

Many new Americans passed through this neighborhood and this plant. Scrawled writing in black marker refers to plans for an “IMMIGRATION TIMELINE: ” Irish → German → Czech → Polish → Lithuanian → Mexican → African American. Side by side across the room, two sheets – one English and one Spanish – explain the same thing: this wall will explore the impact of the meat industry on both the environment and the ethnic groups of the area.    

Coming attraction: The Plant is working toward completing a museum documenting its building’s historical significance for meat consumption and agriculture. Exhibits are planned in both English and Spanish. Photo by Laura Zornosa / Medill.

The diverse ethnic makeup of Back of the Yards ran the risk of aggravating historical social disorganization and other obstacles. A longstanding tradition of civil sustainability has helped alleviate issues from poor housing to unemployment: 1939 saw the founding of the BYNC, one of the oldest U.S. community organizations. Recent years have seen conscious living trickle down to even the youngest area residents.    

Sustainability in Back of the Yards and beyond have grown into a sense of stewardship, too. Gluckman runs a gardening club at Sawyer. “The kids who are in my gardening program,” she says, “are also … leaders in making sure that the room is kept up well, and that people are taken care of.”

There’s “an element of care” unique to environmental education, present in her students’ STEM projects and preserved in Plant Chicago’s circle of life, she said.

Photo at top by Erin O’Laughlin/Medill,



By Molly Glick
April 9,2018 –

Jim Gonksa left his home in Chicago’s Back of the Yards over 45 years ago when his father’s meatpacking job relocated to Bradley, Illinois, where land and rents were more affordable. Today, the majority of the neighborhood’s once-thriving meat processing plants have disappeared. The former Peer Foods factory site on 46th street lives on, absent of hanging carcasses and sausage linkers. The building is currently occupied by a kombucha startup, a beehive workshop, a bakery, brewery and a specialty ice distributor, among other niche businesses.

Today Gonska serves as director of community services for the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. He said he has noticed transformations in the neighborhood since his homecoming, particularly an increase in diversity and a drop in income due to the shuttered industrial giants. But the Back of the Yards could assume yet another identity in the coming decades as a different kind of business invests in the district. This time around, sustainable circular economies may replace assembly lines.

Peer Foods smokehouses have been converted into restrooms and breastfeeding stations. (Credit: Colin Boyle)

This is the vision of the non-profit Plant Chicago, founded in 2011 by Bubbly Dynamics, LLC. Plant Chicago facilitates the cooperative operations for 25 small businesses renting in the 93,500-square-foot facility known as The Plant. Plant Chicago has ambitious plans – it wants to change how we run businesses.

“Today we operate in a linear economy where resources are extracted, a product is manufactured and consumed by us…and then it goes to a landfill,” said Stef Funk, education associate at Plant Chicago. “Instead of wasting something, we’re redefining what waste itself means” among businesses at The Plant.  

The building’s tenants work to convert each other’s excess materials into valuable resources. Chickens roost in dried grounds from Turkish coffee-maker Four Letter Word, Funk said. The same grounds are incorporated into “bio-bricks,” along with a mix of sawdust and spent grain from Whiner Beer Company. Once the research is perfected, bio-bricks sourced from the Pleasant House Bakery could eliminate the need for firewood.

Plants thrive in the aquaponics system. (Credit: Colin Boyle)

Downstairs, an urban garden is illuminated by fuschia LED lights. Funk points to fish in a tank at the garden’s periphery. Here an aquaponics system pipes nutrient-rich water that is absorbed and filtered by plants and returned to the fish tanks. On their visits, local students gaze wide-eyed as they learn about how bacteria breaks down ammonia in the fish waste and provides plants with nutrients.

“It’s difficult for children to imagine things they can’t see, or even wrap their heads around the idea that there’s bacteria in here,” Funk said.

Plant Chicago offers free tours to Back of the Yards residents. Funk said that they are “the first people to know” about jobs at the non-profit and its interior businesses. Nearby high schoolers find work there, too.  

Plant Chicago also hosts farmers markets for residents, something Gonska said he doesn’t often encounter in the area. Gonska acknowledged how new businesses usher in much-needed resources. Still, there are concerns surrounding gentrification.

“We look at it as a positive,” Gonska said. “Any company that comes into the neighborhood, it’s positive for employment and the services that they offer the city.”

Now, Gonska sees less of the bakeries and butcher shops in Back of the Yards of his childhood. The last remnant of his father’s career here is the still-bubbling Bubbly Creek of the Chicago River, where decaying animal carcasses tossed there ages ago in a pre-EPA world continue to decay.


Photo at top: Stef Funk of the not-for-profit Plant Chicago displays a vintage blueprint of the sprawling Union Stockyards. The stockyards employed 40,000 people at its height in the Back of the Yards neighborhood where The Plant refurbished a meat processing facility, now home to Plant Chicago and 25 green businesses. (Colin Boyle/Medill)

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