How to Build a More Resilient Energy Grid for the Future: Part 1

by Daniel Kushner, Jackie Ratner, and Jeff Schlegelmilch |March 10, 2021
Electrical poles of high voltage in blue sky

Photo: iStock

What does it mean to be resilient? Although the definition may vary slightly when referring to a specific kind of resilience, the foundational premise is the same: resilience is sustained stability and the ability to rebound in the face of adversity.

This question is the foundation of a partnership between Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), one of the largest electric utilities in the United States, and the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia University. The partnership will take a deep look at the kinds of vulnerabilities that exist in communities across our nation, and examine how interdisciplinary partnerships, particularly between industry and academia, can work together to build community resilience.

As part of the partnership, this post kicks off a series about the resilient grid of the future and new ways electric utilities can address vulnerabilities to climate and disaster — by making intentional changes to infrastructure beyond structural components alone, and engendering an economic and social ecosystem of resilience. For this first post, we’ll be focusing on the potential of microgrids.

Increasing Energy Resilience

While the traditional electric grid is one of humanity’s greatest innovations, new resilience-building technologies are allowing us to enhance that foundational system, providing the capability to leverage distributed energy resources (that is, small-scale power generation and energy storage) and improve energy resilience through microgrids and other innovations. Electric utilities all over the world are addressing community vulnerabilities to climate change and related disasters by investing in microgrid technology, a unique energy system that can provide power to a community by operating in conjunction with the grid or independently.

As electric utilities begin to focus on resilience at the local level, academic institutions like NCDP are researching the complexities and vulnerabilities that put communities at risk from major disasters, focusing on system readiness across the United States. From a national lens, the community microgrid model is of particular interest, demonstrating how attention to local energy resilience builds capacity for regional response and recovery.

The microgrid ComEd is installing in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, the Bronzeville Community Microgrid, is part of the first utility-operated microgrid cluster in the nation, and it is demonstrating what increased energy resilience looks like for a community and nearby areas. The Bronzeville microgrid is projected to provide more than 1,000 residences, businesses, and public institutions with a new layer of defense when it comes to storm-related power outages. Not only that, keeping the power on in Bronzeville means that surrounding areas can utilize the neighborhood as an oasis in times of great need, extending the benefits of energy resilience.

Increasing Economic Resilience

Enhanced energy resilience can have direct and indirect impacts on a community’s economic health as well. Although investment in microgrid technology can be costly, microgrids often result in lower energy costs for customers and businesses due to their efficiency in managing energy supply and the access they provide to the energy market. Solar panels installed as part of the Bronzeville Community Microgrid at nearby Dearborn Homes public housing development in 2019 serve as an opportunity to demonstrate future economic resilience. As a Chicago Housing Authority property, Dearborn Homes is now part of a solution to drive decarbonization in the neighborhood and fuel economic growth through the green jobs that come with installation and maintenance, and lower energy costs for residents.

In addition, the economic benefits of microgrid technology and distributed energy resources can extend far beyond energy costs. For example, the Bronzeville Community Microgrid deployment provided the opportunity for workforce training in solar panel installation, a trade that is projected to increase by 63% before 2028. When more green, sustainable, and resilient energy technology is deployed within a community, more jobs are created to install and maintain it.

Indirect economic impacts of increased energy resilience also include changes to household spending as higher efficiency can result in lower energy costs. These can be more challenging to measure, but data on economic resilience and its connections to energy will continue to emerge as these systems grow increasingly interconnected.

Increasing Social Resilience

Community interdependencies are significant: a disruptive event in one location or within a demographic segment can dramatically affect those adjacent. This is a vulnerability that requires close attention to how populations, communities, and their energy systems are connected to one another. In order to best support connected systems and communities, our infrastructure must be strategically linked as well.

Interconnectedness is an important measure in resilience research. The resilience of a community reflects that of its individual components, a truth that becomes increasingly evident as climate and disaster science gathers data on communities affected by catastrophes. It is important that baseline resilience indicators including ‘community capital’ are assessed in tandem with other indicators like ‘infrastructure,’ recognizing that all parts of our complex societal systems are interconnected, and therefore no single stakeholder can address vulnerabilities in isolation.

All communities should benefit from innovative technology and clean energy resources, especially communities who have historically experienced disinvestment. What’s more, it is time to take a closer look at how fixing conditions at a local level can enhance not only a specific neighborhood, but all the areas connected to it.

Looking Ahead

NCDP and ComEd are continuing to expand our understanding of how investments in energy will continue to build resilience. With expanding collaborations with the Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy, this partnership is looking ahead, utilizing a growing evidence base on the health and environmental benefits of reimagining our electric grid, to foster resilience rather than patch vulnerabilities.

Paradigm change starts with thought leadership and connecting the dots across various fields of electrical engineering, disaster research, and energy policy. This ongoing partnership will continue to broaden the discussion on the intersection of diverse fields, and share lessons, insights, and future visions to help foster the development of a resilient grid of the future.

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Daniel Kushner is manager of Smart Grid Programs at Commonwealth Edison. He leads the development and strategic planning for grid- of-the-future initiatives, including external communication and content development on emerging technologies, energy storage, microgrids, and smart city deployments. Daniel has produced articles on topics ranging from smart cities to smart grids for such publications as IEEE Smart City, T&D World, and Asian Survey. He holds a BA degree in history from Johns Hopkins University and a PhD in political science from Brown University.

Jackie Ratner is a senior project manager at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. Her advocacy for public access to disaster-specific knowledge has been recognized in awards for science outreach, and she has spoken at the annual conferences of the American Geophysical Union and the European Geophysical Union, as well as numerous smaller conferences. Her BS with honors in environmental geology was awarded by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and she was accepted to the earth science doctoral program at the University of Oxford.

Jeff Schlegelmilch is a research scholar and the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. His areas of expertise include public health preparedness, community resilience and the integration of private and public sector capabilities. He is the author of ‘Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to 21st- Century Megadisasters’ (Columbia University Press). He holds a master’s degree in public health from UMASS Amherst in health policy and management, and a master’s degree in business administration from Quinnipiac University.

Learn more about the role of energy utilities in fostering climate and disaster resilience at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness website.


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Isaac Maze-Rothstein
1 year ago

I’m very curious to see what your teams find and the type of data you’re using in arriving at your assessments. Wood Mackenzie has looked at the US microgrid market and might be able to provide some additional context.