Power plays: Super Bowl sparks spikes, dips on energy grid

We open the fridge again and again. We fire up our ovens and microwaves. And on this day, even during commercials, we typically keep the tube on.

With so many New Englanders doing these things virtually at the same time on Super Bowl Sunday, the region's energy grid operators stay on edge watching second-to-second usage spikes and dips and making output adjustments on the fly.

"We can definitely see the demand changes on the system, in real time, by what's happening in the Super Bowl," John Norden, ISO New England's director of operations, said in a statement Thursday. "Understanding what is going on in real-time, from a societal level, is very important to us, and we monitor that from our control room."

That 4,000-square-foot control room, in Holyoke, Mass., might inspire envy during a season known for big-screen TV purchases. Operators monitor New England's generation and transmission system on a whopping 60-foot-by-15-foot digital wallboard, along with more than 3,000 screens displaying grid operations data, news and weather reports and specialized software running the system.

While The Associated Press reports overall NFL ratings are down — even viewership of the conference championship games dipped 8 percent compared to last year's contests — ISO New England said Thursday that energy fluctuations come in every Super Bowl and they're always more pronounced when the New England Patriots play in the game.

"Operators are monitoring the system and are ready to respond to any dramatic changes, whether that means calling for more generation or ramping down power plants that are already online," Matthew Kakley of ISO New England said Friday.

Depending on spikes and dips in power usage, ISO New England can signal power plants and other generators to automatically raise or lower their energy output every 4 seconds.

"This fine-tuning balances supply levels against small second-to-second variations in electricity use," Kakley said.

Created in 1997, ISO New England is an independent nonprofit that coordinates and directs the flow of electricity through the region's six states. The organization works with power-generating companies and transmission firms to ensure New Englanders have enough juice at home and work.

ISO New England forecasters work 24/7 determining how many megawatts generators must produce in a given week, day or hour. Forecasters review data from previous heat waves, cold snaps and holidays when they are predicting power needs. And today, the grid's forecasters are, in a sense, Super Bowl historians.

"When our control room forecasters prepare their hour-by-hour forecast for the day ... they're looking at previous Super Bowl Sundays to help influence their estimates," Kakley said.

Last year, the region's electricity usage gradually dwindled at a normal rate throughout the Super Bowl between the Patriots and Atlanta Falcons. But the dramatic comeback by the Patriots saw energy usage "suddenly level off and even inch back up as the game moved into overtime," ISO New England said.

The Patriots charged past the Falcons and earned their fifth Super Bowl ring in a 34-28 victory.

During their hunt for another Lombardi Trophy against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, ISO New England says operators will keep a close eye on demand to ensure "the region has the power it needs for kickoff, half-time and any late-game heroics."



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