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The Blackout Bowl: Catalyst for Technology Adoption

The Blackout Bowl: Catalyst for Technology Adoption

The average cost of a 30 second ad during last week’s Superbowl was about $4 million. So when a power outage delays the game for 34 minutes, it’s kind of a big deal. It looks bad for the Superdome, the local utility company (Entergy), the perhaps-not-yet-fully recovered city of New Orleans, the NFL, and for the US at large. CBS was caught off guard and some awkward pauses and transitions accompanied the bizarre turn of events. We can’t keep the lights on at an event averaging over 100 million viewers?

Discounting the effect the partial power outage may have had on the ebb and flow of what turned out to be a closely contested game (should we be thanking the power outage for this?), the ramifications of this Superdome black eye loom large. While the blame-game continues to play out, my hope is that this event will be a very public boon for some emerging clean technology areas. Namely, grid storage and solid state lighting.

Imbalances between the instantaneous supply and demand of electricity can lead to significant voltage fluctuations and under certain circumstances cause a power outage. There are a variety of ancillary services operating on various timescales. The quickest (and most costly) service is frequency regulation. It is still somewhat unclear whether or not improved frequency regulation and ancillary services could have prevented the power outage in the Big Easy. Regardless, the partial power outage should thrust these grid reliability services to the forefront.

Accurately, rapidly, and cheaply correcting grid-level power imbalances is a priority for both utility companies and the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission. Many technological approaches have been proposed to accomplish this. The dominant technology today is gas-fed turbines but these can be slow to respond and costly opening up opportunities for other approaches which include but are not limited to various high-power battery chemistries, supercapacitors, superconducting magnetic energy storage (SMES) systems, and high-power flywheels.

Preventing future electrical “abnormalities” and improving overall grid reliability are great goals that are being attacked from a variety of angles. Improved utility data management software, smart metering, increased capacity, microgrids, and the aforementioned reactive power quality grid storage technologies being developed are just some of the avenues being explored for improving our energy infrastructure. However, the overlooked portion of the outage from the Blackout Bowl can be attributed to the Superdome’s sluggish lighting systems.

High Intensity Discharge (HID) lighting is a legacy technology that is power hungry, annoying (remember that buzzing sound as lights warmed up at the local baseball field or basketball court?), and perhaps most important, slow to reach full light output. Even after power was restored fully to the stadium, play was halted another 10 to 15 minutes as the light bays churned slowly along to full output. Improved demand response and energy efficiency at the utility level has less of an impact when the demand response of the lights themselves can’t keep up.

High intensity fluorescent lighting technology has been successfully implemented in some commercial-scale facilities, and now solid-state LED-based lighting has been quickly gaining acceptance. Both fluorescent and LED-based technologies boast superior efficiencies compared to HID. As we saw all too clearly in the dimly lit delay on February 3rd, perhaps their biggest advantage is the ability to turn completely on and off on the second, instead of minute, timescale. With continued improvements in LED and OLED lighting technologies, the future is indeed bright.

So will this Super Bowl’s legacy ascend beyond the football field and influence the course of exciting cleantech research, development, and adoption? Unlike the game, we hopefully won’t be left in the dark here for an excruciatingly long time.

Associate, Pangaea Ventures Ltd. Matt holds an MPhil in Micro- & Nanotechnology Enterprise from the University of Cambridge and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania with a BSE in Materials Science & Engineering.View Matthew Cohen's profile on LinkedIn


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Guest Wednesday, 22 January 2020