Brainstorm Green

More blackouts are coming

February 5, 2013: 12:16 PM ET

Meet the companies trying to do something about the grid.

By Jack D. Hidary, contributor

130204044643-pod-020413-super-bowl-power-outage-gallery-horizontalFORTUNE -- This weekend the lights went out at the Superdome in New Orleans during Superbowl XLVII.   This caused more than a half-hour delay and changed the momentum of the game.

Entergy, the utility providing power to the stadium, stated:

Shortly after the beginning of the second half of the Super Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a piece of equipment that is designed to monitor electrical load sensed an abnormality in the system.  Once the issue was detected, the sensing equipment operated as designed and opened a breaker, causing power to be partially cut to the Superdome in order to isolate the issue.

Entergy does not tell us what the abnormality caused the fault.   The underlying issue, though, is the faulty design of our electricity system, not just in the Superdome, but across the US.

The electrical grid is a realtime system with almost no storage capacity – either at the utility or local level.  This means that each electron that is sent over the wires from a utility must be consumed immediately or it could cause an issue.   Problems occur in every large system – the question is: is the system built to handle such faults without interrupting service?  The US grid is not.

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When electrical equipment senses a surge or fault in the power lines, it will begin to shut systems down to prevent permanent damage.  This occurred in Ohio back in 2003 when fault-detection equipment cut off power for 50 million people in a runaway cascade and caused numerous deaths.

By contrast, our data grid works in a fault-tolerant manner.  When packets are sent over the Internet there are often blockages, slowdowns and other faults. Our information system, though, has hard drives and buffers to store this info temporarily until it can forward the data to the next hop.  This is what makes the Internet so robust.

We can apply a similar buffering and routing system to the electrical grid.  There are several companies who have developed electrical storage systems for utilities and buildings, but the industry has been slow to implement these solutions.   This is mainly because the oversight  system governing the utilities does not provide incentive for upgrades.  These costs must be shared directly with the ratepayer and public service commissions have been reluctant to approve such measures.

These electrical storage systems would have probably prevented the shutdown at the Superbowl.   By buffering the electrical input to the stadium before it is used, the grid would be able to handle faults and surges within a certain range.   This is similar to CD Walkman devices which had a flash memory buffer to allow for bumps when running or riding in a car and listening to music.

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These electricity storage systems can also condition the electrical input of spikes and troughs and provide a cleaner power line to the building, which reduces faults and equipment failures.   These systems should also be applied to data centers, hospitals and other mission-critical buildings.

Many facilities managers believe that just having on site diesel generators is enough to handle power outages.  This is not the case with mission critical functions where even the small hiccup when power is cut over to the backup systems can cause loss of transactions or life-supporting hospital equipment.

The cost of such storage systems is coming down rapidly.  Lightsail and other startups as well as large-scale equipment providers are developing a range of solutions.  These include battery storage and air compression.   An upcoming conference in the UK will focus on storage for the grid -  and will feature an array of products and companies in this sector.

The power outage at the Superbowl should catalyze us to develop and deploy storage solutions in the near term so that we can enjoy the resiliency in our electric grid that we do reading this column online over our data networks.

Jack Hidary is a startup investor and co-founder and former CEO of Dice.com (DHX). Send Jack comments: @jackhidary.

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