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01.17.2011
Feature> Smart Grid City
Chicago invented the skyscraper. Can it pioneer the best urban sustainable-energy strategies as well?
An analysis of carbon emissions in the Chicago Loop. The buildings coded in green emit the least carbon, yellow the second least, orange the third, and the red buildings emit the most carbon per square foot.
Courtesy Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

Chicago’s historic skyline has always been a source of pride for city residents. And while few new buildings are currently going up, building owners have developed a plan to capitalize on the latest advances: Smart-grid technologies that will convert the city’s iconic skyline into what backers call a “virtual green generator” by retrofitting highrise buildings and the existing electrical grid to a new hyper-connected intelligent-communications backbone. Simultaneously, researchers at local universities, among them the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, have been developing their own cutting-edge smart-grid technology.

“We want to make Chicago a hub for smart-grid manufacturing and deployment,” said Andrew Barbeau, the managing director of the Center for Electricity Innovation at IIT. “Energy generation, delivery, and management is a trillion-dollar marketplace, and we are really trying to make Chicago a center for that.” Chicago has long been a leader in innovation for electrical utility and power industries, he added, even when the West Coast was attracting much of the software and tech jobs. “Chicago never gave up on what its strengths are, and is prepared to make a comeback,” he said.

Elements of a smart grid system.Elements of a smart grid system. 1. Solar panels 2. Wind turbines 3. Smart appliances 4. Remote control for non-essential appliances 5. Plug-in hybrid cars 6. Locally generated power 7. Wireless communication between users and urility company 8. Web and mobile device interfaces to monitor usage from a distance 9. Energy storage.

In fact, the Windy City is a likely birthplace for what could be the largest-ever smart-grid pilot. It has a captive market of building owners—interested in reducing their utility bills and attracting green-conscious tenants—cheek-to-cheek with top electrical engineering universities. Public support and cooperation from local utilities has also made for fertile ground. The Chicago Climate Action Plan, launched in 2008 by Mayor Richard Daley, plans on retrofitting 50 percent of industrial and commercial buildings by 2020.

And while cities in other countries, such as China and Dubai, are rapidly growing in population and new construction where sustainable design choices are a natural for new buildings, Chicago’s population peaked in the 1960s. The city can’t rely on new green construction. It has to look at existing building stock.

“The most sustainable building is one that already exists,” said Barbeau. In the city where skyscrapers were born, the sheer square footage of Chicago’s commercial high rises means that their reductions are proportionally bigger than in private homes.

  Smart grid cities.
Elements of a smart grid city include capacity for plugin hybrid electric vehicles.
 

Building Owners and Managers Association Chicago (BOMA), an organization that represents nearly 300 Chicago commercial buildings including the Aon Center, the Willis Tower, and the Hancock Center, has partnered with the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition (ISTC) and other groups interested in smart-grid technology. According to back-of-the-envelope estimates by BOMA engineering consultants, the downtown buildings could jointly reduce usage by 200 megawatts by linking into smart-grid technologies—an amount equivalent to the production of a fully functioning coal-plant.

“In a much more decentralized grid, each building can function as a power plant,” said Roger Frechette, president of PositivEnergy, a consulting firm launched by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG) following the development of their so-called Decarbonization Plan for the Loop. “Some days the buildings are consuming, some days they’re producing.” AS+GG’s plan also includes a smart-grid initiative and intends to reduce net carbon emissions by 100 percent by 2020.

On a large scale, a smart grid—where the supply is distributed to many sources—would provide more reliable energy. Currently, the U.S. alone loses $100 billion on average each year to blackouts and energy failings, according to an IBM consumer survey. If a transformer fails somewhere down the line, a smart grid could instantly pull energy from other locations with excess.

Funding the smart-grid project, however, which will cost millions in retrofitting and research, is no simple task.

In July, Chicago building owners seemed to have found a lucky break. Along with ISTC and the Citizens Utility Board, BOMA signed a memorandum of understanding with the Republic of Korea to bankroll the multimillion-dollar development-and-research initiative. Public and private Korean groups, including LG Electronics and KT Corporation, were hoping to partner with the city. The deal made business headlines and seemed to be a windfall for the smart-grid initiative.

The year before, BOMA was denied a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for stimulus funds earmarked for smart-grid projects—even as ConEd received $5 million for a similar project in residential Chicago neighborhoods.

Now, BOMA Executive Vice President Michael Cornicelli says that Korea will no longer be funding the retrofitting project.

“We determined that their notion of funding the project was different than ours,” Cornicelli said. “We thought they would be providing a grant. Really, what they had in mind was a provision of some capital with the expectation of some return on the capital.”

The pilot project to retrofit volunteer buildings, including the Aon Center, will instead be put out for bids from public or private parties. According to Cornicelli, Korea will be encouraged to submit again. For others, the upcoming smart-grid RFP will be an opportunity to invest in Chicago’s green nest egg.

Smart grid cities.
A centralized communication network helps manage power supplies in a smart grid city.
 
 

Researchers at Illinois Institute of Technology and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, on the other hand, are still receiving funding from South Korean groups including KESRI, the Korean Electrical Engineering & Science Research Institute. In July, the university signed three memoranda of understanding with the Republic of Korea to develop smart-grid technology and workforce training programs. IIT has long been a frontrunner in smart-grid research; the campus itself runs on a smart grid called Perfect Power, which cost $12 million to implement.

“We’re looking at creating more efficient buildings,” Barbeau said. “We’re not talking about passive solar or double pane windows, we’re looking more at advanced technologies for businesses and home owners to cut down their electricity use.”

As a private resident, the smart grid could allow you to use cheaper off-peak energy to charge your car, run your washing machine, or manage your appliances that are using the most energy. Further, with a photovoltaic on your roof or a wind turbine in your backyard, you could sell extra energy back to the grid for income.

However intelligent grids seem to be, consumers and developers alike have reservations about some smart-grid technologies. Consumer blogs online have been posting medical studies—such as 2008 research by Samuel Milham, M.D., who focuses on occupational hazards—that link smart meters to radio-frequency radiation, which can pose health risks. The California-based consumer rights group Turn wants the utility PG&E to be held accountable for inaccurate smart-meters that are resulting in higher utility bills for consumers. Turn also argues that smart meters are eliminating traditional meter-reading jobs and are compromising consumer privacy.

“There are elements of the smart grid that are ready to go today,” said PositivEnergy’s Frechette. “There are other elements that are not.”

In Chicago, UIC researchers are working on cyber-security, which may address Turn’s issues with consumer privacy. Additionally, in contrast to Turn’s concerns about job losses, groups behind the Chicago initiative believe that the project will bring green jobs to the city.

The non-profit Clean Energy Trust and IIT have partnered to develop small-business cluster initiatives. They were awarded $1.05 million in stimulus money to invest in and provide seed money for local, clean-energy businesses. In smart-grid development, there is room for many industries: from manufacturing home management systems that would allow you to monitor your electricity usage, to iPhone apps that might help you sell your extra energy back to the grid, to a “Geek Squad” trained to come to private residences to retrofit electricity monitors to the new communications backbone.

“It’s all hands on deck,” said Frechette. “In terms of involvement, we’re going to need to look at how walls are put together, we have to look at glass, roof insulation, and the tightness of building skins—it’s all important.”

Smart grids will directly impact architects’ design strategies: Better performing buildings will also mean more profitable ones. When the technology is ready, inhabitants—with in-situ smart meters—will instantly be able to see how well their buildings are performing. Clients, already starting to gravitate towards buildings that are LEED certified, will find that when linked to a smart grid, investing in good design will return not just in savings, but also in terms of income.

“People are already designing positive-energy buildings,” said Matthew Summy, President of the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition. “What do you do with the excess energy? You could shift the load from one building to the next. Suddenly, you’re a virtual power plant.”

Today, visitors look at Chicago’s historic skyline and see the city’s architectural and economic heritage. In a few years, they may look up and see some of the world’s tallest sources of renewable energy.

Ann Lok Lui

Ann Lok Lui is a Chicago-based journalist.