Those who tuned in to last night's Super Bowl will probably remember two things. One was a game that looked like it was over, before becoming surprisingly competitive. And the other was the roughly half-hour in which much of the power in New Orleans' Superdome went out.
It was a rather embarrassing moment for the city in the national spotlight, but given the larger policy discussion about energy and smart grids, it was hard not to wonder if incidents like these could be avoided if the United States invested more in infrastructure.
In January , for example, millions of Americans watched Stanford's football team win the Orange Bowl. None of them knew that an aging transformer nearly overloaded while feeding power to the stadium, triggering voltage alerts that gave new meaning to the phrase red zone. Thanks to high-tech equipment installed through a $200 million smart-grid grant to Florida Power & Light, transformers that used to be checked manually once a year were being monitored electronically every second. The new equipment detected the problem and diverted power elsewhere.
"It would've been embarrassing if the stadium had gone dark," says Bob Triana, the operations manager for FPL's Energy Smart Florida project. "I mean, it might not have gotten to that point. But I'm glad we didn't find out."
In fairness, I should note that we don't yet know enough about what happened in New Orleans to say for sure whether smart-grid technology might have prevented the Super Bowl fiasco last night.
But as Brad Plumer explained, we do know that smart grids can prevent blackouts: "And that's no small thing. Blackouts, after all, have become frustratingly common across the country. Between 2005 and 2009, there were 349 power outages in the United States that affected at least 50,000 people. That's up from just 149 outages between 2000 and 2004, according to Massoud Amin of the University of Minnesota. Problems with the power grid now cost the economy some $150 billion per year."
So, why aren't we making these kinds of investments? I'll give you one guess.
When it comes to the politics of energy policy, the problem is not that smart grids lack high-profile backing. On the contrary, President Obama is a huge fan -- he sees investments like these as good for energy, energy efficiency, energy innovation, and economic growth.
The problem, of course, is that these investments are expensive, and congressional Republicans have come to believe public investments are ... bad. If the private sector wants to invest in smart grids, that's fine, the argument goes, but GOP policymakers insist it's more important to shrink government than invest in energy infrastructure. Indeed, throughout 2010, Tea Partiers would often look at smart grids as an example of "big government" interfering with the energy sector in unnecessary ways.
Of course, the private sector has no incentive to make such investments on its own, since the costs are high, and the return on investment comes slowly over time. As a practical matter, the reality is unavoidable: either the government does it, or it doesn't happen.
To be sure, as the Miami example helps demonstrate, some progress has already happened. But as last night helped remind us, the nation has a very long way to go.