As I just recently relocated to New York City from Berlin, Germany, this year’s Super Bowl was my first to watch since I moved to the United States. I do not particularly care for American Football, but the sporting event, arguably America’s most important each year, is worth watching for the commercials alone. (Which by the way were not that great this year, writes Stuart Elliott.) If you tuned in, however, you witnessed a colossal power failure which interrupted the game for more than half an hour. Maybe it’s the German in me, but if this does not trigger a national debate on energy infrastructure in the U.S., I think the outlook may remain very grim.
William Galston of the Brookings Institution just recently argued that the crumbling U.S. infrastructure has real economic costs. While he is mostly referring to roads and train tracks, ports and airports, this fact is particularly obvious regarding the electricity supply. In our information age, almost all value is created with the help of electricity. A 2006 study by researchers of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center states that the average electricity consumer in the United States has to deal with 214 minutes without power per year compared with 29 in The Netherlands, 6 in Japan, and 2 minutes in Singapore. In the U.S., the study shows, the average electricity customer loses power once every 9 months. In Japan, it is once every 20 years. My guess is this gap has only grown, despite the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Faced with the Super Bowl power failure, E. J. Dionne, a journalist and professor at Georgetown, quickly started the debate on national infrastructure with a tweet, while Stephen Walt, a Harvard Professor, made the point that the power outage will (further) eclipse American power. A country that cannot keep the lights on during its most important sports event may have trouble maintaining its status as a global superpower. Brand Plumer of the Washington Post then started the serious debate on infrastructure, asking whether a smart grid would have prevented the black out.
We can only hope that this debate continues.