The 120-foot-long Bronzeville Renaissance Mural celebrates prominent Black figures and imagines a STEM-powered future while obscuring a utility-scale battery storage facility at 38th Street and Michigan Avenue in the South Side Chicago community. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane / for the Energy News Network

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Community advocates have differing opinions about ComEd and its approach in Bronzeville, but there is consensus around the benefits of continuing a utility-community partnership.

On a plot adjacent to vacant lots located just south of 38th Street on Chicago’s South Side, a new mural celebrates some of the most prominent Black figures of Chicago’s history — and of the nation.

Behind that mural, a utility-scale battery storage facility represents what many see as the city’s energy future.

Both were installed by ComEd as part of the utility’s Bronzeville Microgrid pilot, along with other neighborhood amenities in a project the utility calls Community of the Future. Both established in 2018, they have each had a number of notable successes so far.

But as the combined battery storage and mural installation illustrates, community and business goals can be a challenge to bring into alignment. Nonetheless, community members working with ComEd still see the partnership as key in advancing their own vision for Bronzeville’s future.

Inventor Lewis Latimer and journalist Ida B. Wells are among the Black icons featured in the Bronzeville Renaissance Mural. (Photo by Lloyd DeGrane / for the Energy News Network) Credit: Lloyd DeGrane / for the Energy News Network

Mural illustrates past and imagines future

Next door to Chicago’s historic South Side Community Art Center on Michigan Avenue, the Bronzeville Renaissance Mural features prominent Black luminaries — such as civil rights icon Ida B. Wells, light bulb innovator Lewis Latimer, and NASA mathematician Katharine Johnson — as well as local icons including Harold Washington, who served as Chicago’s first African American mayor, and even the South Side Community Art Center itself. The mural also features future-focused STEM-oriented illustrations (representing science, technology, engineering and math), in keeping with its incorporation into ComEd’s larger Community of the Future program.

The battery location was strategically important to ComEd. But given the location’s cultural importance, the project underwent an extensive community engagement process, according to Aleksi Paaso, ComEd’s director of distribution planning, smart grid and innovation.

“The battery energy storage system location selection process included socialization with the local alderman and constituent outreach through the alderman’s office as well as city council approval,” Paaso said. “Additional location selection factors included benefits of cost and zoning requirements, as well as strategic location research to support the larger resiliency and sustainability needs.

“Once deployed, ComEd then partnered with community stakeholders, including Gallery Guichard, Little Black Pearl, and Alderman [Pat] Dowell, creating a Renaissance Mural that depicted how technologies like this battery are part of a long history of community leadership and innovation that will help Bronzeville and the region meet the climate crisis.” 

Local artists Shawn Warren and Rahmaan “Statik” Barnes created the mural during the summer of 2020, which also featured submissions from Little Black Pearl art students.

The 40-yard-long mural celebrates the rich history of Bronzeville — a major destination during the Great Migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow South during the early 20th century — as it obscures the hardware inside. It also reflects the importance of culture in the community, according to Gallery Guichard co-owner Frances Guichard, who was quoted in a Chicago Sun-Times article shortly after the mural was dedicated.

“This project allows us to be seen as a community that still engages with art and sees it as something important. It allows our many community artists to be properly represented for generations to come,” Guichard told the Sun-Times.

This sentiment was echoed by Jeremi Bryant, a resident of Bronzeville who also serves as regional community liaison for Elevate Energy in Chicago, which is not involved with any aspect of the microgrid or Community of the Future projects.

“I know that the community liked [the mural] because it fits in with the theme of that corridor” on Michigan Avenue, Bryant said. “It is next door to the South Side arts museum, and also across the street from Margaret T. Burrows’ house who was a fan of the arts and also the founder of the DuSable Museum. So, in that area where you had this somewhat of a cultural frame, to put the mural there was a great idea. 

“There were thorough talks with the community and the art community in Bronzeville about what they wanted, what [ComEd] planned to do [with] that battery station, because they did not want it to be an eyesore … they did not want it to just be, you know, brick walls around infrastructure.” 

While the mural has been a welcome addition, other views of the storage battery make clear it is an industrial facility. (Photo by Lloyd DeGrane / for the Energy News Network) Credit: Lloyd DeGrane/Energy News Network / for the Energy News Network

Not everyone is enthusiastic, however.

Bruce Montgomery, CEO of Bronzeville-based Entrepreneur Success Program and a member of the advisory council for the Community of the Future, feels the project represents a missed opportunity for the neighborhood.

“That lot in most communities probably would have ended up being invested in as more quality residential,” Montgomery said. “But now you’ve taken it up with this box car. … You’ve got big things sitting out in the middle of a vacant lot a couple of doors down from one of the most historic locations in Bronzeville. … It’s about 50 feet from the South Side Community Art Center. So, then they said, ‘Well, maybe you guys could recommend how we could fix it up so it didn’t look so weird.’” 

Engagement with the community

The Community of the Future advisory council is composed of approximately two dozen individuals and organization leaders from a broad range of organizations, conducting formal sessions quarterly, along with more frequent informal meetings, according to Paaso. And while the atmosphere between ComEd and its advisory group is largely constructive, there are areas of divergence between ComEd’s goals and those of the community, according to Montgomery, who has served on the advisory council since its inception.

“The committee at one time had bloated to a size of maybe 25 or thereabouts, but now we’re down to what I would call a committed dozen,” Montgomery said. “For those of us that are still at the table, we’re not going anywhere. We have a vision for our sustainable future, and we’re going to continue to espouse this vision with or without [ComEd]. ComEd clearly knows where I’m coming from, and I think they respectfully appreciate that.” 

Projects like the Community of the Future require extensive outreach to community stakeholders on the part of companies like ComEd to overcome potential areas of mistrust, according to Bryant.

“I do think that utility companies in general need to be very careful about who they say they’ve talked to in the community,” Bryant said. “Talking to a group that has the community name on it is not necessarily talking to, or speaking with, the community per se. And I know you can’t knock on every door and you’re never going to get an entire population’s opinion to go in your favor; however, the more transparent and the more you share and the deeper you get into the community, the better.” 

Engaging with people face-to-face as much as possible is essential, although the pandemic has made doing so less feasible, according to Yami Newell, associate director of community projects for Elevate Energy.

“I would say the way that information travels is more by word of mouth. It’s neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend, family member to family member,” Newell said. “And that requires a lot of different kinds of engagement. Sometimes it requires a lot of informal engagement. If you talk to folks on my staff, they’ll tell you how after they might attend a community meeting there, they stick around for lunch … not now, obviously” amid the pandemic.

The microgrid and Community of the Future in action

Along with the microgrid, ComEd has sponsored or announced a number of community-related activities, including off-grid and solar-powered streetlights, free Wi-Fi throughout the service area, and freestanding digital kiosks providing community-related news and energy-related information. 

Billy Davis, general manager of JitneyEV, a venture of the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership, which is working in collaboration with ComEd to develop an electric vehicle-based shared-ride service, commented on the need to engage communities of color in the green economy.

“We’re trying to demonstrate that, particularly in our community, beneficial electrification comes in many forms, not just the electrification of transportation … so that folks in Black and Brown communities, people who are ratepayers, see the benefits of energy efficiency and beneficial electrification and how it impacts on our health,” Davis said. “Our community is just becoming aware of the workforce development opportunities and green energy as an economic development platform.”

ComEd also hosted an Ideathon in 2018 and again in 2019 for Bronzeville-area high school students to design smart city and smart grid projects using STEM skills. An updated version of the Ideathon has been reimagined to accommodate the needs for social distancing, according to Liuxi (Calvin) Zhang, senior manager for distribution engineering and design for ComEd.

The virtual format of the reimagined Ideathon allows students across the state to participate, according to Paaso. ComEd had also suggested that students from the entire Chicago Public School system be allowed to compete in the initial Ideathon. However, advisory council members insisted that the competition should highlight the talents of students within the Bronzeville smart community area, according to Montgomery.

“Long story short, the interest from Bronzeville area schools was off the chain. King High School, the military high school, Phillips High School, Dyett, all the schools in the Bronzeville community had teams. Some of them had more than one team,” Montgomery said. “They all produced brilliant ideas from these young minds. They had faculty advisors and it was a phenomenal success when the ideas were presented at the Ideathon.

“It didn’t blow the community away because [we know] how smart these young kids are. … But it was a surprise [to ComEd] because their original thought was, they didn’t think there were that many STEM-oriented students and mentors in [our] community. But we proved them wrong.” 

Successes and future plans

Like many programs, the Bronzeville Community Microgrid and Community of the Future initiative have been adversely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.  Nonetheless, each program has achieved significant successes. In April 2019, the microgrid successfully concluded a “simulated islanding test” that mimicked a number of stressors that the system might encounter, including a major weather event, an act of terrorism or a cybersecurity attack.

Also in 2019, ComEd partnered with ARIS Wind to introduce a pilot of 12 integrated solar and battery energy storage systems at Chicago Public School system facilities and the Chicago Housing Authority Dearborn Homes development in conjunction with the microgrid. The project was partially funded by a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, with VLV Development also providing funding. The Dearborn Homes solar facility will generate 750 kilowatts to provide power to the property’s 17 buildings, including 660 residential units.

Three “smart kiosks” have been installed that connect to ComEd fiber, providing real-time weather updates, emergency alerts, transportation route tracking, pedestrian wayfinding, local business promotion and neighborhood events, and 1 GB of free high-speed Wi-Fi, Zhang said.

(Photo by Lloyd DeGrane / for the Energy News Network) Credit: Lloyd DeGrane / for the Energy News Network

In total, 9,268 customers had interacted with the existing kiosks as of February 2021, with an average dwell time of 8.6 minutes. The photo booth, get around, eat and drink, events and shopping functions are the most popular. Promotions for Bronzeville-area small businesses are in the works for the kiosks, according to Paaso.

ComEd launched the DASH EV Pilot program in 2017 in collaboration with Innova EV and the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership to provide residents of a senior housing facility with low-cost rides to the grocery store, pharmacy, public transit stations and other destinations. The DASH mobility project has cut down on transportation costs while supporting the microgrid through charging infrastructure, Zhang said.

In the next phase of the microgrid, ComEd contracted with Houston-based Enchanted Rock to provide 5.5 MW in dispatchable natural gas-fired generation to support the Bronzeville Community Microgrid. The projected completion date is the first quarter of 2022, according to Paaso.

Shaping their own vision

Community stakeholders must take an ownership role in directing the program and the microgrid, in the course of promoting their own objectives, according to Paula Robinson, president of Bronzeville Community Development Partnership.

“I think the level of engagement from an advisory perspective has been very good, providing input and reacting to ComEd’s plans for the Community of the Future visions,” Robinson said. “I think the community has been challenged on how to present a community-driven strategy or invited to innovate around its own priorities. ComEd has educated, engaged and employed. I think the community has to empower itself.” 

Montgomery expressed a desire to promote community development through partnering with ComEd, rather than serving as a means for the utility to accomplish its own ends.

“I want to see Bronzeville area businesses be a part of the new green economy,” Montgomery said. “ComEd spends quite a lot of ratepayers’ money on energy efficiency programs. Not only Bronzeville area businesses, but Black suppliers in general have been on the outside looking in, in terms of playing key roles in the implementation of these programs. So, as it relates to Bronzeville and the broader Black community, I want to see more of an equitable participation in the reinvestment of ratepayer money in ways that create jobs and economic opportunity for the very communities that are served by this.

“This money doesn’t come from heaven. Everybody that has paid a bill for all of their adult lives and all of their parents’ adult life and all their grandparents’ adult life — they deserve the chance to participate in the multi-decade, multi-generation investment.” 

As an advocate for Bronzeville and its continued development, Robinson expressed a strong desire to maintain a partnership with ComEd, while shaping the collaboration to produce a mutual gain.

“We all want smart cities. But in order to have smart cities you need smart communities,” Robinson said. “ComEd is a public utility but the community is a viable business partner with several key roles as ratepayer/customer [investor], as client/developer [infrastructure], and as owner/entrepreneurs [innovator].

“The community has skin in the game, when you compare the morbidity rate of Bronzeville versus Streeterville we also have a real self-interest for clean energy. Renewable energy [and] the green economy represents huge new opportunities, but first the community has to envision itself as both stakeholders and shareholders and continue to build capacity.” 

Audrey Henderson

Audrey Henderson is an independent writer and researcher based in the greater Chicago area with advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. She specializes in sustainability in the built environment, culture and arts related to policy and related topics. Her work has been featured in Wallpaper magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Architect magazine, Next City, Transitions Abroad, Belt Magazine and other consumer and trade publications.