National Geographic News
A photo of the Metlife Stadium.

Crews work to ready MetLife Stadium in New Jersey for Super Bowl XLVIII, as federal agents fly nearby in a helicopter. Officials have taken extraordinary measures to prevent another power outage like the one that delayed play at New Orleans last year.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN MOORE, GETTY

Patrick J. Kiger

for National Geographic

Published January 30, 2014

No matter whether you're rooting for the Seattle Seahawks or the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday, there's one play nobody wants to see after the snap.

That's the kind of electrical malfunction that turned the lights out at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans during last year's big game, interrupting the second half for 34 minutes. (See related, "What Caused the Super Bowl Blackout at the Superdome?")

Since that mishap, the organizers of this year's game at New Jersey's MetLife Stadium have been working with the NFL, the state Sports and Exposition Authority, and local utility officials to make sure that the more than 82,000 fans in attendance and more than 100 million others watching on TV across the nation won't be cursing the darkness. It's been a daunting task. (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Electricity.")

In addition to ferreting out and fixing any electrical system defects that might cause an outage, they've had to protect the power supply against the threat of an ice storm or other extreme winter weather that could swoop in to disrupt the first Super Bowl that will be played outdoors in a northern locale.

Beyond that, they've got to deal with the sheer complexity of a spectacle that University of Pittsburgh power engineering expert Gregory Reed calls "a football game with a rock concert at halftime," plus pregame events such as an outdoor tailgate party attended by 10,000 people at an adjacent racetrack. In total, the Super Bowl will require about 50 percent more juice than a typical Jets or Giants game at MetLife Stadium: 18 megawatts of electrical capacity. That's as much as a town with 12,000 inhabitants would need, according to Kristine Lloyd, spokesperson for local utility PSE&G.

But to put the Super Bowl's electricity use in perspective, some of the big Internet big server farms, like Google's, probably require nearly as many megawatts as MetLife Stadium, and actually use a lot more electricity, day in and day out, because they run all the time. The operators of those facilities generally put in place the same sorts of safeguards that have been added for the Super Bowl.

An Extra Power Line

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said officials have been preparing literally from the moment that the lights went out at last year's event. "We've got redundancies on top of redundancies," he said.

For starters, PSE&G has bolstered its infrastructure against bad weather and equipment failures, said Lloyd. The upgrades include installation of a third power line to augment the two already in place to deliver power to the stadium complex. Each of the lines is capable of supplying the entire 12 megawatts of electricity that MetLife Stadium normally requires to power the lights and the rest of its standard power needs. In addition, the utility has positioned a backup mobile transformer in Carlstadt, N.J., less than a mile from the stadium, which can be deployed in case the normal circuitry that supplies the stadium fails.

Lloyd declined to estimate how much money was invested in the upgrades. "I can't even give a rough figure for the costs," she said. "We don't break out costs that way."

New Jersey's stadium authority, which has responsibility for the electricity once it gets inside the complex, has upgraded its substation and taken steps to make sure everything works properly in the stadium itself. That included hiring an outside consultant who shot infrared images of every piece of wiring in the stadium, in an effort to spot and fix flaws. "It was painstaking," Lloyd said.

Officials also have installed separate generators, which are to be fueled with biodiesel, to provide an additional 6 megawatts of electricity. Much of the nonfootball extravaganza, including the halftime performances by Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, actually will be powered by the generators, McCarthy said.

Finally, in late October, officials staged a test in which they simulated the Super Bowl's power usage. Lloyd said the tests detected only "minor issues," which have been remedied.

Photo of an electrician in New York
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANTHONY BEHAR, SIPA USA VIA AP
An electrician runs a cable under a food truck to hook up a generator on Broadway in preparation for Super Bowl celebrations. Biodiesel generators also will be on hand in the stadium to help power the halftime show.

An Outdoor Advantage

Power engineering expert Reed says that in some ways, the setting of the game—the first open-air venue in a cold-weather region to host the Super Bowl—actually makes it less likely that an electrical mishap will occur. In contrast with New Orleans' Superdome, MetLife doesn't have a massive air conditioning and heating system to draw huge amounts of electricity and add to the complexity of managing use.

According to a March 2013 report by an outside engineering expert, John A. Palmer, last year's blackout was caused by a defect in the sensing equipment designed to protect the stadium's electrical system.

(See related, "Super Bowl Blackout: Was It Caused by Relay Device, or Human Error? ")

When the lights were turned back on after Beyonce's halftime performance and the electrical load increased, the equipment "misoperated" and cut power to protect the system.

If the defect had been discovered beforehand, the device could have been set set to handle a higher load, and the blackout would have been prevented, the expert concluded. It took stadium operators 12 minutes to figure out the problem, bypass the switch and restore power, and another 22 minutes to run the stadium's start-up sequence.

Power engineering expert Erich Gunther, whose consulting firm, EnerNex, assisted in this year's Super Bowl preparations in New Jersey, said that stadiums are particularly vulnerable to blackouts because they rely upon metal halide lights. That technology causes electrical current to arc through a gas to create light, rather than heating a filament, as conventional incandescent bulbs do. While metal halide lamps are relatively efficient and produce bright light, Gunther said, they're sensitive to sudden drops in voltage. "Anything that causes the voltage to go down, even for 50 milliseconds, will extinguish the lights," he said.

Once such lamps go out, they must be cooled completely before being relit, or else the equipment risks being damaged, he said. (See a related blog post by Gunther, "Why Does the Power Go Out When It's Cold?")

In addition to checking wiring and equipment inside and outside the stadium, officials can guard against such disruptions by trimming tree branches that could fall on lines and cause short circuits, and by installing barriers to keep squirrels and other animals away from them, Gunther said. He also recommended stationing police vehicles along the power-line route, to make sure that a reckless driver doesn't lose control and crash into a utility pole.

Always-On Society

Worries over a possible Super Bowl outage are symptomatic of a larger problem, in Gunther's view. Utilities have been spending money in recent years to modernize the grid and improve reliability—especially in a state like New Jersey, which took the brunt of Hurricane Sandy and suffered widespread outages in 2012. (See related, "Can Hurricane Sandy Shed Light on Curbing Power Outages?")

But Gunther said those improvements are being outpaced by our increasing dependence upon electric-powered gadgetry—what he calls the "always-on, always-connected society." As a result, people have become less tolerant and less patient when electrical power technology breaks down. "If you can't use your smartphone because the cell tower is down, you're in a panic," he says. (See related blog post: "'American Blackout': Four Major Real-Life Threats to the Electric Grid.")

"Even these big events have become more and more dependent upon things powered by electricity-the big replay screens, all of the electronic media at the game," Gunther said. "In the past, if the lights went out in a stadium for ten minutes—and that did happen—it wasn't as big of a deal." Today, in contrast, "we assume that there's going to be almost-perfect power reliability and quality." (See related, "After Hurricane Sandy, Need for Backup Power Hits Home.")

Reed noted that the worries about an outage dramatize a larger issue-the need to overhaul an aging electrical grid which was designed in the mid-20th century. "We're putting more demand on it. We're stressing it in ways it was never designed to be handled, to be quite honest," he said. "These types of occurrences [outages] are happening every day in our homes, factories, and schools, but they're not getting as much attention as the Super Bowl." (See related, "TV Show "Revolution" Teams Up With United Nations to Shine Light on a World Without Power.")

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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