For 34 long minutes during Super Bowl XLVII, 108.41 million people were stuck in a commercial-free television purgatory while officials scrambled to fix a power outage that darkened half of New Orleans' famed Superdome. According to Entergy, the local utility, a piece of equipment "sensed an abnormality in the system" and opened a breaker to isolate the issue in the affected half of the stadium.
As the Superdome went dark, Twitter lit up. Blackout jokes were the instant vogue."In hindsight," tweeted Nick Toplass, "maybe installing the clapper was a bad idea."
It wasn't until Monday morning that Wonkblog framed the outage in a larger question of public policy: could a smart grid have prevented the blackout? "It’s way too early to say whether better smart-grid technology could have averted the Superdome blackout," wrote Brad Plumer. "But blackouts in general? Smart grids can certainly help with that."
The need for smart grids--localized and nationwide--has become more evident as outages have become more common and crippling in recent years. According to University of Minnesota Professor of Electrical Engineering Massoud Amin, the number of outages between 2005-2009 (349) is more than double that of the previous four-year period (149). Of those 349 outages, 264 were 100-megawatt or more.
"For the past 15 years," writes Amin, "utilities have harvested more than they have planted. The result is an increasingly stressed grid. Indeed, grid operators should be praised for keeping the lights on, while managing a system with diminished shock absorbers."
The stress famously became too great in August of 2003, when a few power lines rubbed up against some overgrown trees in Ohio and killed the power in most of eight states. The 2003 blackout affected an estimated 55 million people in the U.S. and Canada. Since then, a number of similarly small incidents have caused large outages in cities and towns across the country.
The tools that Entergy had to stem the runaway outage at the Superdome are basically the same that operators had to stem the 2003 blackout. Our electrical infrastructure is essentially a manual operation, controlled by switches and levers. The plan of action for outages is isolation.
"Thomas Edison would still recognize the technology in our substations," writes Michael Grunwald, author of The New New Deal, a book that highlights President Obama's struggle to outfit the U.S. with a smart grid.
A smart grid would revolutionize the current system by giving it a brain; it would fit the interconnected web of power lines with meters capable of collecting huge amounts of data and monitoring in real time the energy transfer at every point of contact. A smart grid could identify outages instantly and, using its knowledge of the vast web, reroute power so that minimal damage--or no damage--is done.
Since his 2008 campaign, Obama has been enthusiastic about moving our grid into the future. Finding ways to move renewable energy efficiently from windy plains to big cities would go a long way toward making the U.S. energy independent. The cost may be large (the Electric Power Research Institute estimates $476 billion over the next 20 years for a nationwide smart grid), but the benefits of efficiency could be larger. Not to mention that the hardware of an updated grid would need software to make sense of all the incoming data, opening the door to a potentially transformative new industry.
"Even if the federal government had the money to magically upgrade the system...it would not solve the problem or be the best use of taxpayer funds," writes Grunwald. "Utilities own most of the grid, and they can afford to upgrade it themselves. The real obstacles to new power lines are states and not-in-my-backyard communities that deny the necessary permits, as well as arcane cost-allocation issues that require regulators to make clear who would benefit from the projects."
In other words, until we cut through all the red tape, we'll never know if 108 million people waited for 34 frustrating minutes in vain.