The Chicago skyline. Credit: Pedro Szekely / Flickr

An agreement last month to install a high-capacity superconductor system in Chicago is a serious signal that the futuristic smart grid tech could be commercially viable in Illinois.

The state’s largest utility, ComEd, announced a deal with American Superconductor Corporation (AMSC) to connect some of its substations with wires made from a material known as Amperium. The wires conduct far more power than traditional aluminum or copper lines without losing any energy from resistance or heat loss. That extreme efficiency is expected to boost resiliency on the grid, which can also make it easier to integrate renewables.

We’re really excited about this moving from being a government-sponsored project to becoming a permanent part of the grid,” said Daniel P. McGahn, AMSC’s president and CEO. “ComEd has stated the intention for this to be a permanent asset as part of the grid, which is exciting for us.”

The project is a partnership is between ComEd and AMSC, a Massachusetts-based energy technology company, and is partially funded by the Department of Homeland Security.

ComEd’s Chief Operating Officer Terence R. Donnelly said the installation will support the evolution of a smarter and more resilient power grid. “We will monitor and measure the impact of this project to determine whether to apply the technology elsewhere in Chicago or in other areas of our service territory,” he said.  

What is it?

Superconductors are made of materials that transmit electricity without resistance and can carry current forever without losing energy. AMSC’s superconductor system, called the Resilient Electric Grid, includes a high-temperature superconductor wire called Amperium. The superconductor can transmit up to 10 times more power than traditional conductors and deliver transmission level electricity from adjacent substations.

What problem does the system solve?

Superconductors have many benefits, but increasing reliability and resiliency to the power grid is a huge selling point.

Here’s why: utilities isolate their substations to prevent electricity from crashing through the system, causing damaging fault currents and failures.

By isolating substations, utilities protect their systems but they handcuff themselves from being able to reroute power from one substation to another. The superconductor allows for all the substations to be interconnected. In other words, the superconductor is more flexible.

“An urban distribution substation may have 100 percent redundancy of all the equipment in it,” McGahn said. “What we’re trying to do is think about the grid more like the internet — it’s interconnected. There’s a permanent interconnection and pathway to move power from any substation on the distribution grid to any other substation on the grid.”

What will it do for ComEd?

ComEd will connect its substations with the systems and allow them to share capacity. “Imagine a triangle where the nodes on each end of the triangle are distribution substations,” McGahn said. “What we’re doing is interconnecting those substations. Each one has 100 percent redundancy so it’s as if you’re almost building a new virtual substation under the city streets in the form of the [Resilient Electric Grid] system.”

ComEd will save on its service costs and the need to build redundant substations. Instead, by connecting its assets, they can tap into capacity that already exists on the grid.

“So if you have an outage at one point on the grid that doesn’t propagate to other points on the grid, and you have basically backup capacity throughout the system to serve load where it’s needed,” McGahn said.

Why is it important?

Traditional copper or aluminum wires heat up as they transmit power and in the process lose energy  a kind of leaky water main that can amount to a 10 percent loss. In the U.S., $100 billion worth of electricity losses accrue annually, and blackouts affect more than a million people every four months on average, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

ComEd’s new superconductor is expected to be operational by 2021. For now, the companies won’t say how much the project will cost or where exactly it will be installed. It’s more expensive to install superconductors than traditional systems, but utilities can make up the difference by saving on other costs over time.

[The Department of Homeland Security’s] goal for this phase of the high-tech superconductor technology is to demonstrate an important next step to the commercialization of the system,” said Michelle Blaise, senior vice president of technical services at ComEd. “The results of this project will inform decisions about potential applications of the technology.”

Kevin has written for Midwest Energy News since May of 2017. His work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Chicago Reporter, Chicago Reader, and on NPR’s Latino USA, among other outlets.