Building Local Power With Neighborhood Microgrids

March 1, 2022 | 4:36 pm
Nick Hagen
James Gignac
Lead Midwest Energy Analyst

A new case study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Parker Village, a “smart neighborhood” development in Highland Park, Michigan, illustrates the potential for microgrids as flexible options for communities interested in greater control over their electricity supply and reliability.

The case study, released today, follows up on last fall’s Let Communities Choose collaboration between UCS and Soulardarity, which analyzed how Highland Park could achieve 100-percent local, resilient, and affordable clean energy resources that are owned by people in the community. For the follow-up case study, UCS partnered with Parker Village to explore the questions and options involved in designing a microgrid to serve the neighborhood as it pursues its own clean energy vision and contributes to Highland Park’s overall energy transformation.

Why microgrids?

For a quick primer on what microgrids are (and why they’re awesome), see this blog post by my colleague Julie McNamara. In short, a microgrid is a power system in miniature that serves an individual facility or larger area with electricity, either on its own or in concert with the larger power grid. Interest in microgrids is growing, driven both by a desire for cleaner energy resources and increased autonomy over electricity reliability and resiliency.

Parker Village’s interest in a microgrid stems from a desire for community independence and self-sufficiency. It envisions a neighborhood powered by onsite solar and energy storage batteries to generate its own power versus relying on utilities’ large, often polluting, fossil fuel power plants. Equally important to Parker Village is ensuring electricity reliability.

Highland Parkers and their neighbors in Detroit have long suffered from power outages and underinvestment in their local electric distribution system. A recent report by the Citizens Utility Board found that Michigan ranked 46th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia with respect to average performance in electric utility reliability rankings. Additionally, when customers of DTE Energy—the utility serving Highland Park—suffer an outage, it can take a long time to restore power: an average of more than five and half hours. Similar to Soulardarity’s vision for 100-percent, locally owned clean energy powering Highland Park, neighborhood microgrids in such places as Parker Village offer communities the ability to choose cleaner energy and have more control over investments in the quality and reliability of their electric service.

Soulardarity supporters at Parker Village’s solar-powered shed. Juan Shannon (far right) is the founder of Parker Village. Photo: Soulardarity

Microgrids present flexibility for community choice

Far from being one-size-fits-all, microgrids are highly flexible and scalable depending on the situation and preferences for their application. For our case study, my UCS colleague Youngsun Baek used an energy model called Hybrid Optimization of Multiple Energy Resources (HOMER), which specializes in analyzing multitudes of microgrid options.

Juan Shannon, the founder of Parker Village, shared with us the project’s development plan, including the various residential and commercial structures that will be built or rehabbed, so we could estimate the future hourly electricity needs of the entire neighborhood over an average year. We also learned that Parker Village was most interested in learning about fully grid-separated, or islanded, microgrid options from our modeling exercise.

So, what did we find? Overall, a grid-separated microgrid powered primarily by solar-plus-storage is possible for Parker Village. Yet, as discussed in more detail in the case study, the flip side of microgrids’ immense flexibility and wide-ranging options means there are numerous trade-offs to consider based on the different choices communities or other developers can make in designing their projects. Our case study explores these trade-offs and compares different alternatives, not only to help inform Parker Village’s vision for its microgrid, but also to provide an example for other neighborhoods and communities considering their own microgrid options.

Microgrids as building blocks of clean energy sovereignty

Microgrids also offer the potential to be networked with each other. One such project, the first of its kind, is underway in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood that will integrate a new microgrid with an existing one at the nearby Illinois Institute of Technology. As Highland Park considers ways to move toward the type of clean energy sovereignty explored in Let Communities Choose, microgrids at Parker Village and other locations in the community could connect with each other to share resources and reduce costs.

To unlock the potential for community microgrids, we need policymakers to remove barriers to microgrid development and require utilities to be partners, rather than impediments, for projects such as Parker Village’s. State and federal entities also should continue providing grants and technical assistance for microgrid development, especially in communities that have traditionally suffered from underinvestment.

Parker Village, Soulardarity, and other innovators are showing that communities are not only seeking local clean energy and resiliency, but also how their visions can take shape and inspire others. Let’s support them.