Super Bowl organizers seek to avoid another power debacle

By Jim Polson and Mark Chediak
Bloomberg News

Seconds after a power failure shut down last year’s Super Bowl game in New Orleans, Bill Labos’s phone in New Jersey began vibrating with calls.

“My BlackBerry almost fell out of my pocket,” said Labos, who works for the electric utility charged with preventing a repeat of the blackout at this year’s National Football League championship between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos outside New York City.

“We can’t let that happen here,” Labos was told by his boss, Ralph LaRossa, president of Newark, New Jersey-based Public Service Enterprise Group (PEG)’s utility.

In the 12 months since, Labos has worked with stadium engineers, consultants and New Jersey sports officials to be sure it doesn’t.

Power failures have plagued at least four high-profile sports games including the Super Bowl since 2010, dimming the glow of good feelings such events are supposed to generate for their host cities. More than 108 million people watched the blackout debacle at the New Orleans Superdome.

“We were, in a way, robbed of a celebration of a successful Super Bowl,” Doug Thornton, Superdome general manager, said in an interview this month.

Because the 2013 blackout was blamed on a failed switch, electrical equipment inside and outside the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, has been inspected, upgraded, backed-up and tested repeatedly to make sure all systems — from high-voltage cables to circuit breakers — are as fail-proof as possible.

Successful Tests

“There are redundancies to our redundancies,” Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL, based in New York, said in a telephone interview.

In September, Labos supervised a 12-hour full-power test at MetLife Stadium simulating the Super Bowl.

“Nothing tripped. We’re confident we are going to withstand the load,” he said.

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There are still worst-case scenarios, led by bad weather. The 48th Super Bowl, to be played on Feb. 2, will be the first to be held outdoors in a cold-weather state. Overhead lines into the sports complex could be damaged by ice and high winds, Labos said. The NFL has said it’s prepared to move the game date by a day or two to avoid a severe storm.

Electricity flows into the New Jersey sports complex’s high-voltage network on lines with multiple backups, Labos said. To the stadium itself, however, there are just two feeder lines, and half the lights would go out should either one of those fail, he said. In such a case, switching over all the power to the surviving line would take no more than five seconds — still enough to delay the game.

Reboot Delay

In a January test, the gridiron lights needed 12 minutes to cool, then brighten to full brilliance. Operators of “game critical” computer equipment, including the communications used by coaches to call plays, have been told to provide battery backups so they can restart immediately. That precaution was overlooked at the Superdome, Labos said, contributing to a delay that extended 34 minutes.

Thornton, executive vice president of stadiums at SMG, the company that manages the Superdome for the state of Louisiana, was gathered with NFL executives in the league’s command center last year when half the sports complex went dark. A disbelieving Thornton stared up at the bank of lights that had just blinked off on the west side of the Superdome.

“No, no, this can’t be happening,” he recalled thinking. “Then immediately we start to drill down: What’s the cause and how can it be fixed.”

Power Draw

Even after a tripped switch was discovered and the lights came back on, Thornton remained nervous because he didn’t yet know the cause of the problem. To avoid another blackout, he started cutting power demand, including shutting off compressors for the air conditioning system.

It took 12 minutes to restore full power to the Superdome and another 22 minutes to restart the electrical system and restore the lights to full brilliance, Michael J. Burns, a spokesman for Entergy, said yesterday in an e-mailed message.

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Entergy had spent $4.2 million improving the Superdome’s electrical system before the game and the equipment worked without incident at three major events and during multiple tests a week before the game, he said.

Public Service, the New Jersey utility, expects the Super Bowl to use as much as 20 megawatts of power for lighting, scoreboards, video displays, cooking, communications and other uses, similar to other large stadium sporting events. That’s roughly enough electricity to power 16,000 average homes. Portable generators provide electricity for the halftime show, parking lot promotional tents and Fox Sports, the game’s broadcaster.

Faulty Equipment

Blackouts at the 2013 Super Bowl and at two other major U.S. sporting events in the past three years were traced to faulty utility equipment. Game three of baseball’s American League Championship Series in Detroit was delayed for nearly 20 minutes in October after a power cable failed, said DTE Energy Co., the company responsible for supplying electricity to the stadium.

A Monday night NFL game in San Francisco in December 2011 was twice delayed by power failures at Candlestick Park. A break in a PG&E Corp. power line cut lights to the stadium and delayed the start of the game by 20 minutes, then a second problem with stadium equipment halted the game another 16 minutes. Mayor Ed Lee called it “a national embarrassment.”

At the Superdome last year, an electrical relay installed by Entergy Corp. (ETR)’s New Orleans utility to prevent an overload was blamed for the power loss. In March, a consultant hired by Entergy, SMG and the state authority responsible for the Superdome blamed a “design defect” in the device.

Checking Again

An improperly set relay and a loose wire caused blackouts during a regular season NFL game at MetLife stadium in 2010, Labos said. During Super Bowl preparations, specialists from Public Service, the state sports authority, MetLife Stadium and EnerNex LLC, an independent engineering firm, have confirmed proper settings on relays and inspected for loose wires with an infrared camera.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has made it clear he’ll tolerate no glitches that mar the state’s chance to shine during the most-watched annual television event in the U.S. He was sitting next to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last year when the lights went out at the Superdome, and immediately promised that if a similar goof-up happened this year, the bodies of those responsible would be “strewn in the parking lot.”

Bill Labos and LaRossa at the New Jersey power company would probably be first among the parking lot carnage if a blackout disaster is repeated. They’re not worried that will happen.

But just in case, “We’ve checked with our lawyers,” LaRossa said. “Both Bill and I are covered under workers’ compensation.”

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