This summer marks an interesting juxtaposition of two anniversaries—the 30th anniversary of the New York City Blackout of 1977 and the fourth anniversary of the Blackout of 2003, which left 50 million people from New York to Ohio and north to Toronto in the dark for upward of several days. These anniversaries are significant for several reasons. From a social and cultural viewpoint, the response to each was strikingly different, particularly in New York City—rampage and looting in 1977, calm questioning in 2003. But then again, New York in the summer of 1977 was a very different place, a city beset by economic turmoil and crippled by fear of a serial killer known as Son of Sam. And while I can not speak firsthand to the events of 1977 (I was only 10 at the time), I do distinctly remember where I was and what I was doing when the “lights went out” on Aug. 14, 2003—I was at work at 770 Broadway, the then editorial office location of Architectural Lighting magazine. In retrospect, given the all-too-recent reminder of Sept. 11, we stayed in our offices too long; we should have been out of there, but it was not really clear if it was just a local power outage confined to our Manhattan neighborhood or something much larger. Little did we know.
In the days and months that followed the 2003 blackout there was a lot of finger pointing between politicians and utility companies: How did this happen? Whose fault was it? Could this happen again, and what steps needed to be taken to prevent that from happening? Most significantly, we were reminded that our once-robust infrastructure system was sadly in need of major overhaul, as we were once again most unfortunately reminded Aug. 1 by the devastating failure and collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis.
Four years later, the question remains: What is the state of the U.S. electric grid? In June, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would provide up to $51.8 million for projects dedicated to modernizing the country's electricity system, projects that will include research and development of high-temperature superconductors, which “have the potential to alleviate congestion on an electricity grid that is experiencing increased demand from consumers.” This kind of funding is critical in allowing private and public partnerships to address the nation's electricity issues as demand continues to increase at an exceedingly fast pace. Joint ventures between the Lighting Research Center, the U.S. Department of Energy, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the California Energy Commission, Connecticut Light and Power, and lighting manufacturers are well under way to create simple and cost-effective load-shedding systems for use at critical demand times.
In Architectural Lighting's March 2007 issue, Gregg Ander, Southern California Edison's chief architect, discussed some of the current “demand response” issues—smart metering and communication protocols—in his article “Connectivity for Smart Buildings.” And while there is a substantial amount of research and development underway, change will not happen overnight. The key is for architects, lighting designers, and engineers to work with utility companies in understanding how these smart technologies can be used and creating the right interface between the infrastructure system and individual buildings. There are still several weeks of summer and potentially uncomfortable temperatures awaiting us. We can't afford to let this issue—the health of the nation's electricity infrastructure—fall off the grid again.