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A closer look at Chicago’s quest to become a smarter city

A closer look at Chicago’s quest to become a smarter city
ComEd, the City of Chicago and AECOM are working together on a smart community aimed at achieving sustainability, carbon reduction, and resilience.
ComEd, the City of Chicago and AECOM are working together on a smart community aimed at achieving sustainability, carbon reduction, and resilience. More specifically, this collaboration focuses on Chicago’s Resilience Strategy, through the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Program (100RC) and ComEd’s Community of the Future in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, which aims to make Bronzeville one of the most connected, green and resilient communities in the U.S. The successful collaboration was recently documented by the Alliance for a Sustainable Future, a joint effort of the United States Conference of Mayors and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Focus areas and their identification

Bill Abolt, VP, AECOM
The City’s Resilience Strategy and the Bronzeville Community of the Future initiatives prioritize collaborative approaches that emphasize community engagement. According to Bill Abolt, VP of AECOM, which served as a strategic partner in this venture, key to the successful development and implementation of Chicago’s Resilience Strategy was the development of partnerships with organizations already working to advance resilience in the city, and including them as essential partners in advancing Chicago’s sustainability and resilience goals.
“Together, the City, ComEd, and AECOM have partnered to align efforts and create additional resilience value for communities and the city overall,” Abolt said. “The formalized collaboration approach is replicable, scalable and demonstrates how a programmatic strategy can make a difference in neighborhoods at the same time that it contributes significantly to the city- and region-wide carbon reduction and resilience goals.”
To do this, the three partners identified key areas of opportunity in the Bronzeville community to advance both city and ComEd goals. In order to further identify areas of collaboration in these areas, AECOM, ComEd, and various representatives from city departments, sister agencies, and the Mayor’s Office conducted a series of working sessions in the summer of 2018, focusing on three themes; distributed energy resources and resilience, partners in building resilience, and income-eligible energy efficiency programs.

Solutions proposed in the Chicago smart city initiative

The partnership between the three entities that worked to develop smart city projects in Chicago gave emphasis to the deployment and testing of new energy-related technologies and business models to develop expertise and resources, establish lasting collaborations, and improve community resilience together.

Abolt explained that the collaborative working sessions began by identifying projects and investments already ongoing in the Bronzeville community through ComEd’s Community of the Future, and exploring how to advance and leverage them. These Community of the Future initiatives included:
  • A microgrid and development of approximately 1.25 megawatts of advanced distributed energy resources (DER) including solar power and storage and additional investments in DER
  • A comprehensive energy efficiency plan to reduce energy use by 20 percent across the entire community
  • An electric vehicle mobility program serving neighborhood seniors
  • STEM-based initiatives for neighborhood students and job training and outreach programs to connect residents with the job opportunities created by the smart energy investments
  • Community kiosks with public Wi-Fi for information on energy efficiency, public services and community events
  • Smart sensors to measure air quality, soil moisture, and solar intensity, etc.
  • Solar-and wind-powered safe passage lighting in partnership with Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Housing Authority.

Implementation of solutions and key takeaways

All the projects were developed with success indicators and metrics, such as cost savings realized, reduced energy cost burden, reduced housing cost burden, improved mobility access, reductions in energy usage and other community and livability benefits.
“Specifically, as part of the Bronzeville Community Microgrid, ComEd, with support from AECOM, developed comprehensive performance metrics that will measure resilience holistically,” Abolt said. Holistic resilience includes the ability of the electric grid to respond to large-scale disruptions in the electric supply, the broader community and urban resilience, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and impact on community economic indicators. In total, the microgrid project will track more than four dozen different metrics from carbon reductions and energy reliability to safety and health.

The collaboration identified several lessons for other communities wishing to pursue something similar:

Identify quick wins: Identifying quick wins can help motivate various parties and stakeholders to invest time, money, and other resources. By identifying the clear overlaps in goals and commitments between parties early, stakeholders can more quickly capitalize on win-win situations for cost sharing, savings, and greater community impact.

Formalize partnerships: Formalizing collaborative partnerships, including establishing performance metrics, is critical to success. AECOM is exploring expanding the use of collaboration agreements with the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, Elevate Energy, ComEd, and the Chicago Community Trust as a tool for replicating the successful initiative:

Community engagement is key: Early and ongoing structured community engagement is essential in directly shaping program priorities.

Collaboration is a two-way street: Private sector partners must recognize and address the organizational structure of cities and the role of specific departments and agencies in implementation. Additionally, governments must understand and accommodate the regulatory constraints that utilities work under. Brokering working relationships between city government and utilities and other stakeholders requires a sufficient lead time in order to appropriately navigate the complex regulatory and other requirements of both types of organizations.

Learn from others and identify best practices: AECOM drew lessons from the City of Chicago Resilient Corridors Initiative, Boston Smart Utilities Vision and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Triple Bottom Line Green Infrastructure Program among others for some of their work.

These key takeaways and the importance of a vision before the technology is implemented reflected in a comment from Shay Bahramirad, VP of Engineering and Smart Grid at ComEd. 

“We hope this innovative lighting solution will not only light up the physical paths students walk on but show them that STEM isn’t just something you study in a classroom; it can transform everything from the internet to your walk to school,” Bahramirad said in a release from the company.
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