The lights, installed by Illinois utility ComEd, will provide both campus illumination and educational opportunities for students on the city’s South Side.

Bright idea: Off-grid, renewable-powered streetlights installed at Chicago schools

Illinois utility ComEd unveiled renewable energy-powered, off-grid streetlights at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Chicago last week. The five streetlights will enhance safety by lighting two public school campuses on the city’s historically underserved South Side. 

The lights are permanent installations that build on a 2019 pilot program at two other public schools as part of an ongoing initiative to boost sustainability, resilience, and connectivity.

Combining function and education

The streetlights will provide both campus illumination and educational opportunities for students.

The energy-efficient LED streetlights, manufactured by ARIS Renewable Energy, feature “miniature power plants” called Remote Power Units, or RPUs, that are not connected to the power grid. The innovative design draws energy from an integrated wind turbine with enhanced airflow capabilities. The units also contain solar panels and battery storage, which could power the light for up to five days without additional power generation. In addition, the units have a self-powered internet connection to let students connect to Wi-Fi.

The utility will work with the schools to create a STEM curriculum based on the streetlights’ technology and operations. Teachers will be able to reference the real-world cleantech examples on campus during lessons about renewable solar and wind energy, battery systems, and off-grid power systems.

ComEd unveiled the streetlights at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Chicago last week.
ComEd unveiled the streetlights at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Chicago last week. Credit: ComEd / Courtesy

Eye toward equity

ComEd launched the Community of the Future program in the Bronzeville neighborhood in 2016. It aims to bring technological solutions to neighborhoods within their service area that transform them into smart communities, explained Emily Kean, senior manager of smart grid programs at ComEd, during an IEEE PES power engineering conference this spring. The technologies boost energy efficiency and assist with solutions to pressing problems like climate change.

ComEd selected Bronzeville based on a variety of social, economic, and logistical factors including resiliency and grid infrastructure, Kean said. Equity and inclusiveness are the heart of the program.

“It’s always important to look around the table and see who’s not there,” she said. “For our program specifically, we are targeting cities and communities that have been historically disinvested in as a starting place.”

Program organizers engage with local partners to ensure the solutions they deploy meet the community’s wants and needs. The initiative aids with decarbonization, sustainability, and establishing STEM learning programs. Implementing cutting-edge projects isn’t always smooth sailing, though.  

“It does take resources; it takes energy; it takes time,” Kean said. “This doesn’t happen overnight.”

Expanding the impact

The flagship project in Bronzeville is a 7 MW microgrid that includes solar and energy storage technologies and is expected to go live this year. The new microgrid is islandable, meaning it can operate independently from the greater power grid, and it will connect to an existing microgrid at the Illinois Institute of Technology

The U.S. Department of Energy provided $4 million in grant funding for the microgrid project, with the goal of testing specific microgrid innovations. For example, the Bronzeville project will deploy smart inverters for solar and battery storage. If successful, it will demonstrate a utility-scale solar microgrid implementation that overcomes the major barrier of seamlessly integrating solar microgrids into utility grids, and it will improve efficiency while operating without deteriorating reliability, power quality, and operational security. 

Other Community of the Future projects in Bronzeville include a senior electric vehicle rideshare program, free EV chargers installed near multifamily residential buildings, and a mural celebrating prominent Black Chicagoans and STEM-centric themes on the microgrid’s battery storage facility.

This spring, Rockford, Illinois, became the second Community of the Future participant. Projects will continue in both participating communities, Kean said.