The village of Oak Park might seem indistinguishable from its neighbors. A suburb on the western edge of Chicago, it shares a street grid with the city and a sustainability plan with a bordering village, River Forest. But this community of 50,000 people has a historic character all its own -- and is the hometown of an impressive range of talent, including Homer Simpson voice actor Dan Castellaneta, Ernest Hemingway, actress Betty White, political advisor David Axelrod, and journalist Tavi Gevinson.
Last year, Oak Park bundled its residential electricity accounts and went out to bid for a new energy supplier. Not only did it end up with a more favorable rate, but the deal included 100 percent renewable energy credits, adding 170 million kilowatt-hours of wind power into the regional grid.
And now, the village has volunteered to be a testing ground for “smart grid” technology that could someday revolutionize the way we generate, transmit, and use electricity. And we’re not talking about just smart meters here -- rather, a thoroughly digitized, completely transformed system that is tied into a network of renewable sources like wind and solar, and is capable of “self-healing” during storms and outages.
“Literally every piece of equipment along the way changes,” says Oak Park’s sustainability manager, K.C. Poulos.
The project, which will include a network of small solar-electric systems on residential roofs, is projected to cost between $5 and 6 million, and half of the cost will be covered by the Korea Smart Grid Institute. Oak Park is working with the International Institute for Sustainable Design to secure funding for the rest.
I talked to Poulos for Knope and change, our series about the women behind green changes in our city governments. Here’s an edited version of our conversation about their smart grid experiment. Hat tip to Oak Parker Doug Burke for the suggestion.
Q. Why are you working with the Korea Smart Grid Institute?
A. They did the demonstration on an island in South Korea called Jeju Island. It's kind of like their Hawaii -- it's a resort area. They were able to put up a demonstration that showed how distributed generation like solar can be connected to a network operations center. All of these houses got battery storage so when you weren't using your solar power in the house, you could store it in a battery system. When the grid on that island became overloaded with demand, the network operating system could send messages to those households saying, “You need to use to your battery. We're going to take all of the energy from your solar panels for the next four hours and put them right on the grid. And then we will send you a check next month. Thank you very much for letting us buy your power for four hours.”