Widgets Magazine


From Gridiron to Grid

CHERRY HILL, NJ – “Well, that’s embarrassing,” my Dad said as the cameras panned across the darkened Superdome.

To fill the half-hour gap in Super Bowl XLVII, the TV commentators made idle chitchat, Dad watched YouTube videos on his smartphone and I added a few more rows to the latest baby blanket to hang from my knitting needles. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Superdome workers scrambled to restore light to America’s biggest sporting event.

Although we still don’t know the full story behind the Super Bowl power outage, the incident served as a very public reminder of how a relatively small failure (in this case, an error message resulting in a flipped breaker) can bring down an entire system (or, you know, half the Superdome).

It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind at larger scales: namely, the nationwide electricity grid. Which the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) would like us to think about. Right now.

The country’s network of power lines, which connects 1,137 Gigawatts of generating power to 130 million homes, is getting old. In some areas, pieces of infrastructure that are half a century old are long overdue for replacement; many locations would benefit from overhauls to improve efficiency and reliability.

At the same time, we’ve never relied on our electricity more. The transportation system is overloaded, with many lines running at or near capacity. So when the inevitable happens and one of those lines snaps, the others struggle under the additional burden of rerouted power. Just as a major traffic snarl on Interstate 280 can slow down the 101 as commuters switch sides of the Peninsula, so too can the flow of power be forced through uncomfortable bottlenecks, sometimes producing additional failures.

We’ve seen examples of the power grid’s vulnerability across the country over the last decade: the dramatic Northeast power failure of 2003, brownouts and blackouts in Boston, Los Angeles and Manhattan and, just a few months ago, the effects of Hurricane Sandy on New York and New Jersey. Sandy, whose storm surge forced the shutdown of several power plants, also highlighted the centralization of our electricity production and its subsequent vulnerability to natural disaster, human error and, of course, terrorist attack.

The ASCE would like us to invest $107 billion in grid improvements between now and 2020 to patch weak points, make room for ever-increasing demand and incorporate new technology into a “Smart Grid.”

The term “Smart Grid” has gotten a lot of use over the past few years. In fact, the Obama administration earmarked $3.4 billion for its development. There’s no one definition for the hip new phrase, which serves as a catchall for a suite of modernizing technologies designed to make electricity delivery more streamlined and responsive. Truly smart grids instantaneously collect and respond to electricity production and consumption information, turning off or revving up generators as demand ebbs or spikes and using past data to anticipate future needs (like, say, powering millions of televisions tuned in to the Super Bowl on one special Sunday night each year).

A Smart Grid, proponents argue, would also be uniquely suited for the future of electricity generation. Although large power plants are incredibly cost efficient, they may be unsustainable (as fossil fuel supplies dwindle and the hazards of climate change become more apparent) or too risky (Japan’s 2011 earthquake left many nations nervous about nuclear power). New green technologies lend themselves to more dispersed applications: a bank of solar panels perched on each roof in the neighborhood, a few wind turbines on an environmentally conscious research campus. This “distributed generation” might one day make our energy supply more reliable by reducing our dependence on single points of failure and ensuring a limitless, renewable supply.

But it requires an electricity grid that can shunt power in two directions and allow for its temporary storage in batteries dispersed throughout the system (like a basement battery bank or a Prius plugged in out on the driveway). This means billions of dollars in investment and a few years of trial and error before the Smart Grid realizes its true potential.

Meanwhile, back in New Orleans, the lights have come back on over the gridiron. The stadium engineers are mopping their brows. The ‘49ers are about to start an inspiring but ultimately heartbreaking run that will leave them just short of a record-breaking comeback. And across the country, we’ll shout at our televisions, castigate the refs’ bad calls and relish the game that comes but once a year.

Holly is actively mourning the end of the football season by searching for new sporting entertainment. She welcomes reader comments, feedback and advice on which hockey team to root for at hollyvm@stanford.edu.

About Holly Moeller

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).