Super Bowl power outage sheds light on smart grid

Super Bowl power outage sheds light on smart grid

When the lights flicked off at Super Bowl XLVII, the vibrant energy of the whole event screeched to a halt. Fans and players waited in confused suspense through a 34-minute delay, sparking a flurry of conversation about what happened (including many Twitter jokes about Beyonce’s performance).

The official line of energy provider Entergy New Orleans was that their equipment had “sensed an abnormality in the system,” and they will “continue to investigate the root cause” of the outage. In other words, they’re not sure either.

This high-profile "oops" hints at a bigger problem across America’s electrical grid. Much of the equipment is old and wasn’t designed for the way it’s used today. The American Society of Civil Engineers claims the country will need to invest $673 billion dollars by 2020 to avoid breakdown. That’s a lot of cash, and the current financial paralysis in Washington doesn't bode well for that kind of expenditure.

Future Super Bowl managers seeking to avoid embarrassment in front of 111 million football fans may investigate lower-cost tech options made possible by startup companies working on futuristic smart grid technology. Radically improved connectivity and control between energy generation and deployment could avoid these kinds of mix-ups.

Smart grid management was key to the success of 2011’s Orange Bowl, where a Department of Energy project turned an overloading transformer into a non-issue. The government-backed solution wouldn’t work everywhere, so energy managers will likely turn increasingly toward private sector innovations to help them circumvent another #superbowlblackout.

While we're unaware of any startups targeting sports arenas in particular (opportunity, people!), other smart grid start-ups are poised to stop these kinds of outages - while generating real returns for their customers 24/7. There are quite a few in the market, so let’s take a closer look at two particularly promising ideas.

AutoGrid: Large energy service companies like Entergy might look to the power of big data, managed by not-yet-launched AutoGrid. Headed by the former Director of Smart Grid Research in Modeling & Simulation at Stanford University, the company collects information from smart meters and forecasts how much energy is needed in the next second, next minute, or next week. The perennial problem of matching energy supply and demand becomes much more manageable.

GELI: Impressive future gains could be realized by the work of Growing Energy Labs, Inc., or GELI, backed by cleanweb VC and design firm Greenstart. Their visionary idea is a master software platform linking energy production, batteries, and real-time electricity cost in one fell swoop. Their software smartly stores and deploys energy from batteries. This means users have energy when they need it, or can sell it during when prices are highest. Their platform exploits big differences in peak and off-peak pricing, a huge advantage over conventional on-site energy management.

Smart grid startups have huge potential, though it’s hard to say if these advances or others could have prevented the Super Bowl outage. Smart grid geeks would surely argue yes, but none can say for sure until Entergy figures out what really caused their problem. The episode will go down as an awkward pause in the middle of the most-watched broadcast in the history of television. It also has potential to kickstart conversations like these about the exciting developments in smart grid technology.

Meanwhile, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu told the Associated Press he didn’t think the problems with the Super Bowl electricity would affect his city’s chances of hosting the 2018 Super Bowl. New Orleans will certainly do all it can to explain away the outage, but it won’t be easily forgotten.

Stadium operators and planners of future Super Bowls will certainly take care to avoid a blackout repeat. This might make the difference for the many professional stadiums already generating their own renewable energy on the property. The Philadelphia Eagles’ Lincoln stadium, now able to power its games entirely from solar and wind, starts to look like a great option for its secure energy alone. If a stadium like that had smart-grid software from one of these innovative startups, their guarantee of lights on and energy flowing would carry some real and new clout.

Green field lights by wongwean via Shutterstock