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Feb 5, 2013

Shedding Light on the Superdome’s Blackout


When I wrote Friday about the NFL’s opportunities to incorporate greater energy efficiency into its marquee event, the Super Bowl, I wasn’t suggesting it literally turn off the lights. Yet, in a way, that’s exactly what happened, though you can be sure the NFL is not happy about it.

Whether you watched the game or not, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the third quarter blackout that put a temporary stop to the on-field action and left teams and fans alike in the dark for more than half an hour. Questions still remain about the root cause of the blackout. Meanwhile, speculation about its cause has been rampant in what amounts to a grand teachable moment.

Some suggested that the electrifying halftime show featuring Beyoncé—which immediately preceded the blackout—was to blame. (It wasn’t.) Some invoked the Superdome’s haunted status. CBS commentators joked that a Baltimore Ravens power surge led to the blackout. And still others pointed a finger at a would-be scapegoat, the stadium’s recent installation of energy-efficient lighting.

In fact, on Saturday—one day after my “Greening the Super Bowl” blog and one day before the big game—the U.S. DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy issued a press release praising the Superdome’s energy efficiency efforts. DOE called special attention to the installation of 26,000 LED lights that would illuminate the exterior of the stadium in a spectrum of rainbow colors, noting that the lights only drew 10 kW of electricity, “equivalent to the amount of energy used by a small home.”

As others have noted, however, those external LEDs and their impressively small load have little to do with the concourse and field lighting that went dark. That main lighting—according to the Superdome’s Facilities Guide—is less efficient metal halide technology. But I digress…

More than one major news outlet likewise mentioned the external LED lights of the DOE press release in the context of the Superdome’s $336 million renovation, which some touted modernized and greatly enhanced the energy efficiency of the stadium. In truth, however, those hundreds of millions in renovations were part of a six-year project that began in late 2005 to rebuild the stadium in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Aside from the LED lights, some electrical system upgrades, and building insulation, the projects—largely completed by fall 2011—seem to have had little to do in the way of energy efficiency. According to the Superdome’s official press release, much of the renovation budget went toward projects such as replacing nearly 25,000 field-level seats, gutting and refinishing suites and bathrooms, new siding for the building, and larger concession stands.

Though the lights went out, it seems they—and especially the newly installed exterior LEDs—were not to blame.

Local utility Entergy maintains that the grid remained energized and the Superdome was receiving power throughout the event. Meanwhile, Doug Thornton, SVP for stadiums and arenas at SMG, which manages the Superdome, said that a “piece of equipment sensed some abnormalities” in the electrical load and “shunted the power in the Superdome.”

According to RMI consultant Leia Guccione, that “piece of equipment” was almost certainly a tripped circuit breaker. A joint SMG/Entergy press release issued Monday confirms as much. Mind you, this isn’t the simple breaker found in circuit panels in houses like yours and mine. Larger circuit breakers like those found in a modernized stadium such as the Superdome are pre-programmed with safety logic that will trip the breaker for various reasons: under or over voltage, overcurrent, frequency mismatches, or arc or ground faults are a few. Depending on the scenario, the actual cause of the trip could have come from the utility side or the customer (Superdome) side of the circuit, notes Guccione.

Breakers like these will likely have a code that says exactly why they tripped. If and when officials decide to release that information, we’ll have a better sense for why the blackout happened and what we can do to prevent it from happening again. (The poor 49ers—a blackout also interrupted a 2011 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. At least San Francisco won that game.)

In the meantime, we’re left to speculate as others have done. By Monday morning, less than 18 hours after the event, news outlets including the Washington Post were asking, “Could a smart grid have prevented the Super Bowl blackout?” The answer is maybe.

For example, if a smart grid sensed that the Superdome was approaching an electrical load trip limit, and also had some fashion of automated demand response (such as load shedding), the stadium’s blackout probably could have been avoided. Similarly, if a problem arose from the utility side of the grid (vs. the Superdome’s customer side), and the Superdome had some level of microgrid intentional islanding capability plus on-site electricity generation and storage, the stadium could have kept the lights on even as the area grid went dark. (As it was, backup generators kicked in and restored some power while technicians scrambled to return full power to the complex.) And of course, ever on my efficiency soapbox, if the Superdome had invested in much deeper energy efficiency efforts and reduced its overall load, would it have ever approached limits that theoretically tripped the breakers in the first place?

Such smart grid technology successfully prevented a blackout at the 2011 Orange Bowl, when a smart system detected that an aging transformer was close to overloading and diverted power elsewhere.

Back in New Orleans, the Superdome ultimately bounced back from its blackout, and the 49ers nearly bounced back from their first half scoring blackout. Whether or not smart grid technology could have prevented the Super Bowl XLVII blackout in the first place remains to be seen. The latest reports suggest that the Superdome’s breakers tripped due to a voltage surge on the Entergy side of the grid, protecting the stadium’s electrical equipment from potential damage. As for what caused the voltage surge, that may prove much harder to pinpoint. Last-minute upgrades to the stadium’s electrical system may also be partly to blame.

And while it’s tempting to seize this moment as an opportunity to evangelize, it is perhaps better to simply ask ourselves: Can reducing loads through energy efficiency and can smart grids and other technologies help to make our electrical systems more flexible and resilient? Even as we wait for more answers about the Superdome, that answer is yes.


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Image courtesy Nwill21 / Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons 3.0 license.

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