Super Bowl Warning

02.05.13

Super Bowl Blackout Should Help Build Momentum for a Smart Grid

The 34-minute power cut during the year’s biggest sporting event illustrated for 100 million viewers the effects of our aging electrical grid. John Avlon on why we’ll see more blackouts unless Obama invests in a smart grid.

The 34-minute Super Bowl blackout is just the most recent high-profile example of a growing national problem. Blackouts are on the rise across the United States, with major power outages doubling over the past decade.

Video screenshot

The problem is an aging electricity infrastructure strained by skyrocketing electricity use and, as in the case of the blackouts following Hurricane Sandy, the increased frequency of superstorms that have knocked out power in some populated areas for weeks.

After Sunday night’s Super Bowl blackout, Newsweek Global editor Tunku Varadarajan tweeted, “Is this New Orleans or New Delhi?”—a reference to the summer subcontinent blackout that affected 600 million. A few beats later, Tunku articulated this widespread anxiety: “Did Chinese hackers trigger the outage?”

The cause of the blackout is still not known. Local energy supplier Entergy is downplaying any suggestions of systemic weakness, stating that a piece of equipment “sensed an abnormality in the system … causing power to be partially cut to the Superdome in order to isolate the issue.” That’s corporate speak for “we don’t have the foggiest idea what happened.”

Nonetheless, the 34-minute hold on the Super Bowl should be sufficient to get broader attention for an issue that is vital to America’s long-term security and economic competitiveness: building the smart grid.

It may be tempting to file the idea under “boring but important,” but building a smart grid is almost as significant as building the transcontinental railroad was in the 1800s.

Here’s the high concept: basically, today’s national energy grid is like the overstretched power strip in your college dorm. It’s a patchwork affair, with networks connecting to networks in ways that are tangential and highly unstable. The grid is held together by the infrastructure equivalent of duct tape and prayer.

Building a smart grid would allow for the monitoring of the electricity flow in real time, making it dramatically more reliable and efficient for both producers and consumers, while integrating renewable energy efforts as well. It would improve our commerce and our resilience. The idea has long been on the national to-do list. In 2007 a modernization of the energy grid was codified in legislation under President Bush. During the 2008 campaign Barack Obama ran on modernizing the nation’s electricity grid, using smart-grid practices. Five years, later some progress has been made, but we’re still a long way from implementation.

The need is urgent, not only because of the comparative economic benefits of a smart-grid system but because of the vulnerabilities in our current system. There have been reports of a city, often suggested to be in Brazil, having its electricity cut off by extortionist hackers. In addition, seized al Qaeda computers showed detailed studies of U.S. infrastructure, including the electrical grid and nuclear power plants. Finally, our electrical grid has reportedly been infiltrated by cyberspies from China and Russia who left behind malware programs that could be used to disrupt or destroy critical infrastructure.

The grid is held together by the infrastructure equivalent of duct tape and prayer.

None of this is calming to contemplate, though warnings of a digital Pearl Harbor are often dismissed as hyperbolic. But in September 2012, Wired reported that the maker of the smart-grid control software had been hacked—not a good sign for future stability.

The Obama administration devoted roughly $4.5 billion of the more than $789 billion in stimulus funds to the establishment of a smart grid, but that was just a down payment. While the initial smart-grid down payment was matched by private funds, experts estimate that building a national smart grid could cost 10 times as much over the next two decades.

“There was this sense of frustration,” former Obama budget director Peter Orszag told Michael Grunwald in an interview for his book, The New New Deal. “Here’s the first African-American president, the economy has fallen off a cliff, history is calling, and—really? I can’t just do a smart grid?”

Sadly, it’s not that simple, in large part because the sums are huge, public-private partnerships are essential, and the technology is still being perfected in some cases. Moreover, the stimulus’s stated goal of going to “shovel ready” projects did not necessarily fit long-term investments like the smart grid. That’s why the smart grid should be a cornerstone of the second-term agenda for the Obama administration and a key criterion for the selection of the next energy secretary, to replace the outgoing Nobel laureate Steven Chu.

America is more dependent on reliable, affordable electricity than ever before, and there is no sign of that demand waning in the future. While the nearly half-trillion-dollar price tag over two decades to build a national smart grid is steep by any measure, it could end up saving the economy $150 billion a year in current costs from the old electrical grid. This is one investment that lives up to the name: an initial public expense that actually saves money in the long run.

If the essential role of government is to establish a secure civic framework within which people are free to live their lives to the best of their ability, the smart grid is a defensible and desirable public-private project. It is ambitious but consistent with the national interest. As the Chinese proverb says: “The best day to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best is today.”