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Fewer Power Outages Expected After Upgrades To Grid At Irving Park ComEd Facility

The technology allows electricity to be rerouted around downed substations to speed recovery from electrical grid outages, ComEd officials said.

American Superconductor Co. cables have been installed underground at ComEd's Irving Park substation to upgrade existing infrastructure.
Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago
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IRVING PARK — A ComEd substation in Irving Park is the first in the world to use a liquid-cooled cable that helps protect against outages from severe storms due to climate change, hacks and other threats to the city’s electrical grid. 

The upgrade was developed by American Superconductor Co. and was partially funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology directorate.

Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago
A display model of American Superconductor Company new liquid cooled cable showing its internal components.

The core innovation are thin strips of superconductor wire manufactured just outside of Boston, said Mike Ross, managing director of superconductor power systems at American Superconductor. 

“The idea is we can move an incredible amount of power through these small wires if they’re at the correct operating temperature,” Ross said. 

Traditional power cables made from copper wires are larger and less resilient than the new, much thinner superconductor wires. These thinner wires are insulated and braided into a cable that is injected with a flow of liquid nitrogen cooled to minus 337 degrees Fahrenheit.

For comparison, it takes about 18 conventional copper wire cables to transfer the same amount of electricity one of the new liquid-cooled superconductor cables can handle, Ross said. 

The thinner, more advanced cable also allows ComEd more flexibility in upgrading existing infrastructure for increased use, like electric car charging stations, and it gives the company the ability to “quarantine” cables experiencing technical issues in a way that limits problems in the rest of the electrical grid, said ComEd President Terence R. Donnelly.

The technology allows electricity to be rerouted around downed substations to speed recovery from electrical grid outages, and it will create a backup system to keep electricity flowing in the event of a major power grid interruption, ComEd officials said.

“It’s a constant challenge. Extreme weather events have become more and more frequent. We all know it. We live it. We see it,” Donnelly said. “It’s like the 100-year storms are coming annually. And they bring the potential for greater systemic damage.”

Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago
The new liquid cooled power cables developed by American Superconductor Company are smaller and can handle more electricity than traditional copper cables.

The technology was installed at the Irving Park substation across from the ComEd Chicago North Headquarters, 3501 N. California Ave. It was unveiled to the public Thursday, and ComEd will keep testing the semiconductor cables over the next year as it looks at upgrading other substations in the city. 

American Superconductor’s version of a superconductor cable began being developed about three decades ago and involved $1 billion in private equity investment to develop its core technology, said company President Daniel P. McGahn. 

The upgrades at the Irving Park substation include an additional $100 million investment from American Superconductor in addition to the funding from the federal government, he said.

“This really is the first installation in the world of this resilient electric grid technology,” McGahn said. 

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