Could a smart grid have prevented the Super Bowl blackout?

February 4, 2013

As a rule, the Super Bowl doesn't typically involve pressing public-policy questions. But on Sunday, fans in New Orleans' Superdome sat in the dark for 34 minutes after the electricity suddenly went out.


The lights went out at the Superdome during the Super Bowl on Sunday. (Reuters)

This spurred plenty of funny jokes on Twitter. But it also led to some more serious policy debates. Conservatives quickly savaged a Department of Energy press release saying, "Super Bowl City Leads on Energy Efficient Forefront." Liberals were quick to blame America's crumbling infrastructure.

There's not much reason to think that New Orleans's efforts to conserve energy — "The city retrofitted four libraries using an integrative design approach," enthused the DOE — had much to do with the blackout. But the infrastructure question is more interesting. Could better infrastructure — a smarter grid, say — have kept the lights on?

The best we can say is...maybe. Officials still aren't sure what, exactly, caused the power outage at Super Bowl XLVII. Here's the latest, fairly vague explanation from Entergy, the local utility: "a piece of equipment that is designed to monitor electrical load sensed an abnormality in the system.  Once the issue was detected, the sensing equipment operated as designed and opened a breaker, causing power to be partially cut to the Superdome in order to isolate the issue."

In other words, it's still a mystery.

That said, it's worth observing that other cities have managed to avoid stadium blackouts through advanced technology that allows grid operators to identify problems more rapidly and fix the system in real time. This was the case with the Orange Bowl in 2011, as Michael Grunwald has reported:

In January, for example, millions of Americans watched Stanford's football team win the Orange Bowl. None of them knew that an aging transformer nearly overloaded while feeding power to the stadium, triggering voltage alerts that gave new meaning to the phrase red zone.

Thanks to high-tech equipment installed through a $200 million smart-grid grant to Florida Power & Light, transformers that used to be checked manually once a year were being monitored electronically every second. The new equipment detected the problem and diverted power elsewhere. "It would've been embarrassing if the stadium had gone dark," says Bob Triana, the operations manager for FPL's Energy Smart Florida project. "I mean, it might not have gotten to that point. But I'm glad we didn't find out."

Now, it's way too early to say whether better smart-grid technology could have averted the Superdome blackout. But blackouts in general? Smart grids can certainly help with that.

And that's no small thing. Blackouts, after all, have become frustratingly common across the country. Between 2005 and 2009, there were 349 power outages in the United States that affected at least 50,000 people. That's up from just 149 outages between 2000 and 2004, according to Massoud Amin of the University of Minnesota. Problems with the power grid now cost the economy some $150 billion per year.

In theory, this is solvable — though it wouldn't be cheap. A recent study from the Electric Power Research Institute estimated that it could cost up to $476 billion over the next 20 years to establish a nationwide smart grid. But, the group argued, doing so could conceivably bring trillions in benefits. Sensors could allow grid operators to identify problems and avert or isolate outages and blackouts. Utilities could juggle demand more easily and lower their costs. Plus, it would be easier to integrate renewable power into the grid.

And if no Super Bowl ever goes dark again, well, that would be a side benefit.

Further reading:

--Climatewire wrote up the EPRI study on smart grids for those curious to learn more.

--Back in 2011, San Francisco's Candlestick Park suffered two similar (albeit shorter) blackouts. At the time, Larsh Johnson of eMeter argued that smart metering might have helped the stadium avoid the outages.

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Neil Irwin · February 4, 2013