Why Did The Superdome Power Go Out?

The lights went out, and they stayed out for 34 minutes. Colin Kaepernick had just been sacked, and the 49ers were down 22, and if momentum is a real thing, the blackout swung it firmly to San Francisco. Had the Niners come back to win, the power outage would've gone down in sports history as one of the great Baltimorean electrical-sabotage conspiracies, alongside the one about Kevin Costner and Cal Ripken's wife. As it is, the country merely wants to know why the Superdome went dark. Was it infrastructure? Incompetence? Beyoncé?

There was confusion in the immediate aftermath of the blackout—CBS sideline reporter Steve Tasker said he had been told by an official that the delay would be 15 minutes, but when he asked John Harbaugh, the Ravens coach hadn't been told anything. Later, Jim Harbaugh would say he had been informed it would take 20 minutes to get the power back on. We now know that any timeframes were just guesses, because the power company supplying the Superdome wasn't even sure what had happened.

"At all times, Entergy's distribution and transmission feeders were serving the Mercedes-Benz Superdome," the company said. "We continue working with Superdome personnel to address any outstanding issues."

Narrowing things down further were an FBI statement ruling out sabotage and the New Orleans fire department saying there was no fire—though the NOFD was called for a smell of gas, and to free people trapped in an elevator.

Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun initially reported that a league source had told him the power-intensive halftime show might have been a factor. But Roger Goodell this morning denied that there was any evidence to lay the blackout at Beyonce's feet.

Today, Entergy and SMG, the company that manages the Superdome, released a joint statement. It did not identify the root cause of the power outage, but explained—thinly—how it happened.

"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. Backup generators kicked in immediately as designed."

This chain of events sounds similar to an overloading transformer that nearly cut the power to the 2011 Orange Bowl. But a Time story on America's crumbling infrastructure explains how up-to-date technology at Sun Life Stadium was able to forestall a blackout:

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."

The Superdome outage may have been preventable, and from the amount of work and money recently put into the stadium, maybe it should have been prevented. After Katrina, the Superdome received an entirely new electrical system, with half the renovations paid for by FEMA.

This apparently wasn't enough. As New Orleans was touting the most energy-efficient Super Bowl of all time, the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District was hurriedly planning emergency upgrades to the Superdome's electrical system.

Reports the Times-Picayune:

The September minutes, for instance, have a reference to Entergy's work "to upgrade electrical services at the Superdome," work that "must be completed before the Super Bowl." At that meeting, the LSED board — comprised of political appointees that oversee the Dome — approved spending up to $700,000 to replace parallel electrical power feeds.

[...]

In November, the board received a report from construction manager Pat Tobler on "the planning and execution of the Superdome shutdown to accomplish the replacement of electrical feeder lines from Entergy to the Superdome."

Also at that meeting, Doug Thornton of SMG, updated the board on "the replacement of the electrical feeders that connect the Superdome to the Entergy power vault." The plan was to have "100 percent redundancy," Thornton explained, adding that that would necessitate "the shutdown of the Superdome for at least two days starting Dec. 16." The board approved spending $513,250 on the project.

The LSED's December minutes are not available, but the agenda for that meeting shows the board was to consider approval of a motion to spend up to $946,500 on an "upgraded feeder cable system" and other items.

The implication is obvious: the state agency that oversees the Superdome knew over the summer that the stadium's infrastructure—just seven years old—wasn't sufficient to host a Super Bowl. Whatever additional work was done wasn't enough to keep the lights from going out. (LSED's "preliminary review" finds that the upgrades weren't the cause of the blackout.)

A Superdome official, trying to push the blame back toward the power company, says the problem might have been with one of Entergy's feeder cables—the exact opposite of Entergy's claim last night that an internal Superdome issue was at fault. Either way, upgrading the feeder cables was precisely what LSED spent nearly a million dollars on in December, in an attempt to head off this very issue.

NFL officials and local politicians promise a full accounting, saying it won't happen again. Expect Roger Goodell to use this opportunity to push for more new stadiums, largely at the taxpayers' expense. But as long as low-bid, power-thirsty stadiums have to draw from an aging power grid, it will happen again. And next time it might not be solved in 34 minutes.