Smart Grid Wins at Super Bowl

 | Feb 04, 2013 | 5:00 PM EST
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The smart grid did it.

According to Superdome officials, the local power system "sensed an abnormality in the system" and opened a breaker, partially cutting power to the Superdome to isolate the problem.

According to Entergy (ETR), the local distribution utility serving Louisiana's Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the immediate problem was not Entergy's power distribution system; it was the customer's system. "At all times, Entergy's distribution and transmission feeders were serving the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. We continue working with Superdome personnel to address any outstanding issues." Privately owned SMG, the company that manages the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and Entergy released a joint statement that the system detected a short circuit. "The fault-sensing equipment activated where the Superdome equipment intersects with Entergy's feed into the facility."

While it may have inconvenienced spectators and players, the fact that part of the Superdome's power system automatically shut down is a good thing. Of course, there could have been some faulty detection equipment. But had there been a short circuit and the power system continued to operate, there could have been fires and injuries.

There were no fires. There were no injuries. The NFL got to sell more ads and the fans had a unique experience to tell their friends.

As an electrical engineer, I saw an elegant design in action. I saw a facility that consumes an enormous amount of energy. I saw half of the lights go out, but not all of the lights. I saw what appeared to be redundant feeds into the Superdome, where if one failed, the other remained available.

I also saw an orderly restoration. Instead of throwing a master breaker and instantly restoring power, operators avoided overwhelming the system and instead restored one circuit at a time. This minimized what engineers call, "inrush current."

When large circuits are energized, the initial surge of electricity can be up to 10 times normal levels. For facilities like the Superdome, the inrush could be enormous and it could cause transients throughout the Superdome and Entergy's systems. High levels of inrush could permanently destroy electrical equipment, including transformers and distribution equipment. Replacing transformers could take hours and even days.

But it didn't happen. Knowledgeable and experienced operators did an excellent job. Power was carefully restored in quick order. The Superdome blackout will become a footnote in football history.

While many will argue the blackout is a lesson about America's crumbling infrastructure, it is really a lesson about the smart grid. During the Super Bowl, America saw an early version of the smart grid in action.

Could the Superdome's grid operate faster and smarter? Absolutely.

Over the next decade, America will be designing, developing and implementing progressively smarter grids. Implementation will be lumpy. Some states will advance ahead of others. Presently, we are at grade-school levels. In a decade, most of the nation's population centers will reach high-school levels.

Multinationals such as General Electric (GE), Siemens (SI), Boeing (BA), Johnson Controls (JCI) and Honeywell (HON) are active in deploying smart grid technologies. Add Itron (ITRI) to the list of market leaders in smart meter technologies. Even Google (GOOG) is involved. It developed a home energy management platform called PowerMeter, which is a free energy monitoring tool that gives consumers access to their energy information. PowerMeter offers visualizations of home energy usage, the ability share information with others, and personalized recommendations to save energy.

A significant amount of innovation is coming from outside the utility industry. Hundreds of new companies are starting up, offering new ideas on energy efficiency, grid management, self-healing systems, automated systems and distributed energy systems. With all this innovation already under way, consumers can expect dramatic changes in power distribution and management.

Hurricane Sandy and the Super Bowl have helped the public to improve their understanding of power reliability issues. Consumers and utility regulators are more likely to appreciate the importance of smart grid technologies and they may be willing to invest in upgrading the nation's infrastructure.

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