New case study, federal assistance boost ‘smart neighborhood’ concept in Highland Park

Juan Shannon’s vision of a sustainable neighborhood in Highland Park got two boosts in recent weeks.

In partnership with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Shannon’s Parker Village recently released a case study detailing the feasibility of using a microgrid to power its community. The report came just before last week’s announcement that the city will receive federal assistance to support community-based clean energy projects. 

The study, Designing a Neighborhood Microgrid, builds on Shannon’s vision of Parker Village as a sustainable “smart neighborhood” powered by an independently run local energy grid reliant on renewable energy. The microgrid would power net-zero energy homes, a community center, an aquaponics farm, a cafe, and other dwellings. 

This report follows up on Let Communities Choose, a report published last fall by UCS and the nonprofit Soulardarity, which lays out a vision for powering the entire city of Highland Park with 100% renewable energy and microgrids.

Shannon founded Parker Village in 2015 by purchasing an abandoned school and several homes. He has since built a community garden and is in the process of rehabbing several homes. 

The report outlines how a microgrid system for Parker Village would operate independently of DTE Energy. It also identifies potential options — including grid connection — as a backup in the event of an outage,

James Gignac, co-author of the report and senior Midwest energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggests backup options could include gas, natural gas, generating turbines, and diesel-powered turbines. Or the community could consider having a DTE grid connection and using that when the solar and batteries might need some additional backup.

Gignac acknowledged that backup options such as natural gas and diesel aren’t as sustainable as the microgrid and that connecting with DTE would mean dealing with the complexities of utility rules and charges.

“But the benefit that we see from microgrids is their flexibility and the ability for neighborhoods and communities to make choices about what matters most to them,” Gignac said.

Though Highland Park’s relationship with DTE throughout recent years has been fraught, Gignac points to the option of public-private partnerships for a more sturdy grid system.

One example is now taking shape in Chicago’s majority-Black Bronzeville neighborhood, where the country’s first neighborhood-scale urban microgrid is set to come online. 

The Bronzeville project is supported by funding and technical assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy and local energy utility ComEd.

Gignac suggested working toward a similar partnership in Michigan could lead to better results. “The utility becomes a partner versus a barrier to local communities and neighborhoods pursuing microgrids,” he said.

“We’re urging that the final version of the MI Healthy Climate Plan be more specific about policy changes we need to allow local clean energy to grow in places like Highland Park and all across the state,” he added.

As the potential for greener, clean energy presents itself, Gignac and Shannon encourage policymakers and communities considering clean energy alternatives to use their report as inspiration.

“Parker Village will persevere until the very end, but it’d be great to get more like-minded people to contribute ideas, making [our vision] come to fruition,” Shannon said. “At the end of the day, this whole thing is about helping our community and being an example for other communities.”


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