Chicago Is Trying to Blackout-Proof Its Downtown

Chicago is installing a cable that will prevent blackouts, at least within the Loop

Geo Rittenmyer/Corbis

Chicago will soon start laying a superconducting cable underneath the city that will act as a bulwark against blackouts. The new cable, capable of carrying ten times the amount of power as the cables currently in use, will be able to reroute power from energy substations in the event of disaster. 

This insurance policy won’t come cheap. The Chicago Tribune reports that the Department of Homeland Security is contributing $60 million to the project, but the full cost is likely to be much more.

The Department of Homeland Security is involved because the cable should, in theory, help protect the grid from terrorist attacks. In the event one electric substation is destroyed, the cable would notice the surge in power and redirect the energy elsewhere, preventing the whole system from frying--and keeping the lights on. 

Though power substations might seem to be far down on the list of potential terror targets, it’s something that people involved in counterterrorism and the energy business are taking very seriously. The seemingly well-planned shooting of a power substation with a rifle last April left many in the energy community on edge, worried that it could be a dress rehearsal for a larger attack on the grid.

From the Chicago Tribune:

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.

Of course, terrorism isn’t the only reason for blackouts, and the cable could also guard against the vagaries of nature. Weather-related power outages were estimated to cost the United States somewhere between $18 billion to $33 billion per year between 2003 and 2012.

It’s unlikely that Chicago will get hit with a hurricane like Sandy, which knocked out power in swaths of New York City. But the cable could also be a backup in the event of other large storms, or even smaller events, like the tree branch that kicked off the infamous 2003 blackout in the Northeast.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.