July 16--Commonwealth Edison is working on a plan to install superconducting cable below Chicago streets to shield the Loop against power disruptions caused by terrorism or superstorms.
"This program is designed to provide protection in a catastrophic situation," said Terry Donnelly, chief operating officer at ComEd.
If the electric grid in the Loop area were to be compromised, the cable could reroute vast amounts of power to that area from other sources.
As the world increasingly depends on the electrical grid to power hospitals, businesses and computers, keeping it secure has become a source of anxiety for utility officials, and a priority for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which also is involved in the Chicago project.
The utility is expected to announce the project Wednesday.
Chicago would be the first commercial application of the technology, though American Superconductor, maker of the cable, is also negotiating projects with two other utilities, which its officials declined to identify.
ComEd officials said Homeland Security has committed $60 million to the project.
Still, the project is expected to cost more than that. ComEd officials signaled that costs would be borne by consumers as part of the utility's $2.6 billion grid modernization program that began in 2012.
ComEd, a unit of Chicago-based Exelon Corp., provides power to 70 percent of the state's population, including 3.8 million customers in northern Illinois.
Final details of the project are expected to be worked out over the next six to nine months, ComEd said.
The new wire would be installed under city streets beside current copper wire of roughly the same size. The major difference, though, is that the new wire would be capable of carrying 10 times as much power as the old cable, or the equivalent of power carried by high-voltage transmission lines that connect directly to power plants.
The country's electrical grid is apparently easy to disrupt. In March, The Wall Street Journal reported that a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission study found that coast-to-coast blackouts were possible if just nine of the country's 55,000 electric substations were knocked out.
In April 2013, snipers opened fire on a substation in San Jose, Calif., knocking out power to Silicon Valley. It took utility workers 27 days to bring everything back online.
"We've all seen the news reports on the attack on the substation in California," Donnelly said. "There's so many scenarios of large-scale events that could happen, and we need to keep raising our thinking about how to prepare for that."
In cities like Chicago, electricity is produced at power plants outside the city. That power travels along high-voltage transmission lines until it reaches a substation, where the voltage is "stepped down" before being delivered along power lines to homes and businesses. Each substation supplies power to a section of Chicago.
The substations are intentionally isolated from one another to prevent power failures from cascading. At the same time, those substations cannot take on additional capacity.
The new cable, according to American Superconductor, would be able to sense a power surge (a rise in temperature) and automatically reroute power to another section of cable.
According to American Superconductor, its superconducting cable links those substations in a way that makes it possible to take on additional load and reroute power to areas where it is needed. Its cables would come into operation, for instance, if transmission lines were disrupted by terrorists.
The system would also come into play if storms destroyed substations.
Power outages from natural events have increased as weather patterns have become more extreme. Such outages cost $18 billion to $33 billion per year on average, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
One of the more high-profile situations occurred during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when outages in New Jersey and Pennsylvania left more than 3 million people without power, and 750,000 New York City residents lost power overnight.