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A new technology being used in Chicago could protect cities from blackouts and cyberattacks

August 31, 2021, 12:05 PM UTC

Few assaults on America’s infrastructure would wreak heavier devastation than a cyberattack on the electrical grid of a major city. So far, we’ve been lucky that terrorists and blackmailers have yet to launch a strike on our soil that paralyzes the plants, substations, or cables that power the nation’s homes and businesses. But the toll from sabotage abroad shows the looming threat to New York, Chicago, or L.A. Days before Christmas in 2015, a massive hack in Ukraine attributed to Russia left a quarter-million people without electricity for hours. In October of last year, a malware raid in Mumbai allegedly launched from China triggered a blackout in the financial district that halted trains and shuttered the stock exchange. In Europe, a consortium of 42 transmission networks covering 35 countries uncovered a break-in to software systems that run the lights and computers at office towers across the continent.

The U.S., too, has suffered a number of close calls. Software provider SolarWinds recently unearthed a breach that could have hobbled green energy producers. In 2014, a sniper opened fire on a substation near Silicon Valley, disabling a cluster of 17 transformers; the tech capital narrowly avoided a catastrophic outage. The chaos that targeting America’s energy backbone can wreak on our daily lives came vividly to life in May, when cyber crooks shuttered the Colonial Pipeline. The hit closed filling stations and kept cars parked across five Southern states. The danger extends well beyond criminals and rogue nations. Extreme weather conditions caused by climate change pose a rising threat. In February, winter storms in Texas froze wind turbines and solar panels, leaving 4.5 million homes and businesses without power, many for several days. Just this week, the entire city of New Orleans was left powerless in the wake of Hurricane Ida.

Suddenly, the reliability and safety of the energy grid is top of mind for politicians. In April, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm unveiled a 100-day plan for public-private partnerships to “harden the grid” against future onslaughts. On Aug. 25, President Biden hosted a White House summit where the CEOs of Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet, and IBM all pledged multibillion-dollar programs to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure, and the CEOs of leading electric utilities shared their concerns about imminent threats, and best options for combating them.

A landmark project in Chicago points the way

A new partnership between a pioneer in superconductor technology and the Chicago utility has hatched a new solution for keeping the heat pumping and factories chugging if anything were to knock out parts of the city’s grid. American Superconductor (AMSC), a Nasdaq-listed innovator in energy technology, is deploying its Resilient Electric Grid (REG) system at two substations operated by ComEd, the utility serving over 4 million homes and businesses in Chicago and northern Illinois. If this first installation performs as the city expects, Chicago could expand the technology to link many more of the nodes that distribute electricity directly to homes and businesses. “We’re planning this stage with the next stage of connecting multiple substations in mind,” says Terence Donnelly, president and COO of ComEd. Put simply, REG is a backup system that for the first time connects substations so that if a downtown facility is damaged by severe weather or a massive hack, a nearby station it’s linked to sends power to the offices and apartment buildings that would otherwise suffer a blackout.

The REG technology offers a second big advantage. It could create a fully integrated network where when one substation needs extra power, others that harbor additional capacity can fill the gap. Hence, utilities would no longer need to build each individual station so that it holds tons of excess capacity for times when AC units or heaters are running at full tilt, or when part of its equipment fails. “REG changes the whole geography of the grid,” says Daniel McGahn, AMSC’s chief executive. “The more you network the grid, the less excess capacity you need. The utilities no longer have to keep building new substations to meet higher usage, they can tap the ‘trapped’ capacity from the substations already there.”

The way the grid operates now, its nodes can’t back each other up in times of trouble

To grasp the potential impact of the REG system, it’s important to understand why the design of today’s grids prevents them from sharing electricity. The grid resembles the hub and spokes of a bicycle wheel. Huge power plants that run on natural gas, nuclear, wind, and solar—mostly located far from the cities they serve—send electricity via “long-haul” transmission lines to substations in urban neighborhoods. ComEd has several hundred substations in the city of Chicago alone. Some get their power from a single plant, others from a blend of, say, renewables and natural gas from multiple facilities.

The substations are equipped with transformers that collect all that high-voltage electricity, and step down the voltages to a level that’s safe for homes and stores. The stations’ circuit breakers cut off the power flowing from the big plants if too much voltage is arriving. By the way, you seldom see or recognize a substation while walking around a city. They’re often installed in a brownstone that just looks like a residence, or sheltered in the basements of apartment buildings. That’s a sketch of the transmission and distribution system as it stands today.

The spokes are the lines that run directly from the substations to the homes, apartment buildings, and businesses in their service areas. But the hubs or nodes in the system, the substations, aren’t connected to each other. Their function is strictly distribution, sending the electricity from power plants to their customers. They don’t form a network at all. They can’t back each other up by having substation A that has excess capacity channel electricity to substation B when B is short on power or has shut down during a heat wave, a cyber hack, or an equipment failure.

Because today’s substations operate as islands or silos, each one needs to be designed with far more capacity than it uses most of the time. The reason is twofold. First, the stations must contain transformers and other gear big enough to meet times of peak demand, such as 100-degree days when everyone’s running the AC to keep cool. Second, some of the equipment at a substation will occasionally malfunction. So they need even more backup so that the gear that remains working can compensate for the parts most likely to break down. “All told, most substations have built-in redundancy of 100%,” says McGahn, meaning they’re designed and constructed to generate twice as much juice as their customers consume on a typical day.

Obviously, connecting substations would be a great solution. Today, in case of a cyberattack on one substation, the other stations loaded with excess capacity can’t send their power to light and heat the homes suffering the blackout. Nor can a substation in the suburbs that has extra capacity on a hot day dispatch it to a maxed-out station in a city center.

But the stations couldn’t link up for two reasons. First, the traditional copper cables used to move power were too bulky to fit into the rights-of-way for the much smaller conduits running from the stations to homes and buildings. Second, if and when a substation sends power to another substation, that power starts in a big surge. That surge is powerful enough to knock out the transformers in the station receiving the electricity. Worse, if several substations are connected, the rush can cause a domino effect that disables a whole series of stations. The supposed solution would turn into a disaster on the scale of a cyber hack. That cascading effect is how many blackouts in the past have occurred.

How the new REG technology would harden and expand the grid

AMSC’s superconductor technology miniaturizes power transmission. Its Amperium wire is made from a copper oxide compound that, for the same weight, enables it to carry 200 times the voltage of the regular copper wire that’s the traditional foundation for transmission. When electricity travels one mile over copper cable, as much as one-third of the power is lost during that trip. By contrast, electricity can cover any distance over superconductor wire and suffer no electrical loss.

The U.S. Navy deploys the AMSC’s Amperium superconductors to protect its ships from mines. The technology is calibrated to mask the magnetic field spread by the vessels so they don’t trigger the underwater explosives. But utilities were still reluctant to deploy superconductors for joining substations. They acknowledged that superconductors solved the space problem: They can fit inside six-inch–diameter conduits and pipes that run well within the rights-of-way going from the substations to customers. The rights-of-way for each substation overlap with those of other stations, making it possible to extend the wires from one substation to another in the next neighborhood, or even 50 miles away.

The obstacle: The superconductor technology hadn’t solved the “overcurrent” problem that could cause rolling blackouts. But AMSC’s Amperium was the breakthrough. It combined the ability to carry huge amounts of power over a small wire with an outer layer called a “super-resistor” that tames the surges, and also protects against lightning strikes that could cause cascading outages.

What the Chicago project could mean for cybersecurity and more

As McGahn puts it, the REG technology provides an extension cord between the now-vulnerable nodes in the nation’s urban power grids. If substations are linked, power from those still functioning would automatically flow to the customers of the station that’s attacked or hit by extreme weather. In addition, utilities will be getting far more of their power from renewable sources in the future, and that power shuts off when the wind’s not blowing or even when the sun goes behind a cloud. Grids will need a lot more backup capacity to compensate for that intermittent energy. Linking substations would provide that support without needing to continue the current strategy of building still more substations to ensure sufficient backup.

The Chicago project links just two substations. For McGahn and ComEd the ideal solution is joining many or even all the nodes in one giant network that operates in a kind of buddy system. McGahn wants to create a “super-grid” that allows for more renewables without adding lots of backup capacity, and hence at a much lower cost than would be required under the current system. His vision would make our grids much safer, and enable the grid to channel electricity where it’s needed, when it’s needed, in exactly the amounts it’s needed, with far less need for excess capacity.

It’s a big vision for an old, and some would say stodgy, industry. But it would unite aging infrastructure with new technology to make America’s most vulnerable pressure points, where terrorists and hackers are now taking aim, far more secure.

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